Food Matters: Snowmass Showoff
IF YOU GO ...
Gwyn’s at Gwyn’s High Alpine
Top of Alpine Springs, Snowmass
Breakfast: 9-10:30 a.m.
Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Another reason to visit Gwyn’s High Alpine during lunch: It’s the only way to reserve a spot for the venue’s weekly “Tuesday Tasting and Tapas” series. Limited to 30 people by in-person RSVP only, the après-ski events at Gwyn’s pair small bites with a featured boozy beverage (last week celebrated National Tequila Day; next Tuesday, 3/9, Woody Creek Distillers handles the hooch). Then take a final run with the afternoon Snowmass ski patrol sweep.
THURSDAY, 1 P.M.: Gwyn’s High Alpine is a bubbling stew of skiers and snowboarders with freshly matted helmet-hair, rosy cheeks, wide eyes, and even wider grins. Outside, a long-overdue snowstorm swirls and whirls across Snowmass — a scene visible from most spots inside the mid-mountain lodge outlined in glass windows galore.
The bar, overlooking the slope just below the Alpine Springs lift, is standing room only. Straight ahead, the airy marketplace-style cafeteria bustles with customers deciding whether to bother going any further than the legendary soup bar to stations offering burgers, sandwiches, and salads. Upstairs, patrons gasp in gratitude upon seeing owner Gwyn Knowlton’s glider plane hanging still from the rafters. Downstairs in the window-walled lounge, folks sip hot chocolate, stretch out on plush sofas, and gaze off to the powder-dusted Rock Island cliffs beyond.
Seeking respite from the hustle and bustle, my lunchmate and I step through a glass-enclosed tunnel leading to the property’s crown jewel: Gwyn’s, a full-service, sit-down restaurant with a comprehensive menu and wine list to match. Lined with tufted benches, the carpeted corridor is a whirl of limbs as nearly a dozen people sit and shed gear.
Beneath a stone backdrop to Gwyn’s glowing cursive marquee, hostess Margie Fey navigates the crush of would-be diners. When a man waddles forth to request two tables of five on the spot, I understand what might be running through his mind: Since when do you need an RSVP for lunch on-mountain at a ski area?
Since Gwyn’s High Alpine underwent a dazzling $5.9 million remodel this summer — the first upgrade since Knowlton and now-ex-husband George Gordon assumed independent ownership of the property and renamed it in 1979. Everyone, it seems, wants a leisurely lunch at Gwyn’s. And it’s not even a holiday weekend!
“I had a thing against Crocs — now I love them,” my dining companion enthuses, peeling off her blue ski boots and slipping into a pair of pink “alpine slippers” for complimentary use during meals. Fey, who has worked here 34 years, leads us to the far wall of windows overlooking Coffee Pot trail. Of all the upgrades by Aspen-based Z Group Architects — fawn-colored wood covering walls and ceilings; restrooms relocated from a lower level to ground floor — expanded views and ample light let in by all that glass are most impressive. As Knowlton says when she swans by our table, the revamp “gave everyone a window seat, even if they’re sitting at the back of the restaurant.”
We open cork-covered menus and begin the debate: What to order? For starters there’s a hearty flatbread pizza with truffle-scented wild mushrooms and a pile of zesty arugula or ooey, gooey shrimp and lobster fondue with house-made pretzel bread. We enjoyed both at a media luncheon two weeks ago, though, so we settle on grilled peaches with cream-filled burrata, smoked prosciutto nibs, and basil chiffonade. To enjoy fragrant Palisade peaches in the dead of winter is like a summer daydream come true — even cooler when served on the same colorful peacock china Gwyn’s used back in the ’80s.
We sample both soups — brothy Italian chicken-farfalle and creamy tomato-broccoli (one of two is always vegetarian) and tuck into a breadbasket of freshly baked rolls and wafer-thin crisps studded with dried fruit, nuts, and seeds.
“People ask for recipe all the time and I’ll give it to them,” chirps second-year server Katie McClure. The chef’s daily cut, elk medallions in barbecue-blueberry sauce, and rack of elk with wild lingonberry sauce, both alongside garlic mashed potatoes and winter vegetables, are hot specials. Indeed, Knowlton says, game meat is a perennial bestseller “on a day like today.”
Knowlton’s favorite starter is ahi tuna tostadas, inspired by a fisherman neighbor on Maui, where the family spent summers. Asian-style steak lettuce wraps, a daily risotto, and numerous salads (including kale, red and yellow peppers, golden raisins, Parmesan; classic Caesar; roasted beets over arugula with Avalanche goat cheese) round out the starters menu. Seared Colorado tenderloin or chicken, Hawaiian ahi, Atlantic salmon, tofu, or salmon smoked in-house are optional add-ons. (Breakfast eggs, French toast, and granola are served daily at 9 to 10:30 a.m.)
Though tempted by fire-roasted chicken enchiladas — “on the menu since day one,” Knowlton says — and Hawaiian mahi tacos with queso fresco and pineapple salsa, I’m on a duck hunt for another story, so I choose the seared Rocky Mountain duck with Burgundy-tart cherry reduction, roasted fingerling potatoes, and wilted baby greens from the regular menu. It’s a welcome surprise when a seared, sliced duck breast arrives over a hearty hash of shaved Brussels sprouts, kale, and crispy leek straws mixed with coin-cut potatoes. The scarlet sauce is tangy, savory, and syrupy — easily the most decadent dish I’ve enjoyed during a snow day on Snowmass.
After stealing a few glances to other tables, I plan to return for the rosemary-Dijon Colorado beef tenderloin sandwich; smoked ruby red trout and Brie melt with caramelized onions; and a customizable bison burger, probably with bourbon-barbecue sauce and bacon. Prices ($32, $27, $25, respectively) might seem steeper than other on-mountain options…but who can put a price on the luxury of time, space, genuinely happy service, killer views, and comfy Crocs?
Despite the hype over the venue’s impressive aesthetic enhancements, food has long been the draw at Gwyn’s — executive chef Peter Katynski and sous chef Matt Seaver have been in the kitchen for years. (In fact, Knowlton says, 100 percent of Gwyn’s High Alpine core staff returned this season; many have been employed five-plus years, four more than 30 years. See “Gwyn’s by the Numbers,” opposite page.)
Gwyn’s clientele is similarly loyal. “We have three generations at a couple of tables,” Knowlton says, between shuffling chairs and greeting longtime customers. Later one of those tables breaks into “Happy Birthday,” as Knowlton’s signature molten-center chocolate gateau (served à la mode with house-made strawberry ice cream) is delivered to the honoree. The dessert was born from a happy accident some 20 years ago — long before “gluten-free” was the buzzword du jour.
Whitney Gordon, Knowlton’s daughter and now manager of Gwyn’s, knows how sweet it all is. “It is so much fun to see people walk into the building for the first time with a sense of awe and appreciate what it took to transform it in a single summer,” she says. “What we love most is that people still feel very at home with us.”
Before we depart, I inquire about the framed needlepoint sign in the entryway: “OLD SKIERS NEVER DIE, THEY JUST GO DOWNHILL.”
A gift from original hostess Jill Sheeley, who worked here for a decade before starting a family — “I lost a hostess but became a godmother,” Gwyn quips — the artwork shifts the conversation to some exciting news: Florida-based daughter Tracey (“my ski racer,” Knowlton says) and two young children will rejoin her sister, and Whitney’s son, James, 4, back in Snowmass soon.
“It is an incredible way to grow up and I’m so happy that [they’re] getting to do it in the same way that Tracey and I did as kids,” says Gordon, who travels uphill daily to the restaurant.
The reunion has been a long time coming. “I’m excited to ski again!” Knowlton enthuses. Surely after feeding Snowmass for decades, Gwyn deserves some soul food of her own.
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