Rookie Season: A tear sheet for novice aspen diners

Amanda Rae
Food Matters

Welcome! If you’ve just moved here for the winter 2019-20 season, congratulations! If you’ve lived here for decades: also congratulations! As Aspen locals will attest, the colder months represent prime time to enjoy all that our former mining town-turned-ski sanctuary has to offer, food included.

Still, as a miserly taxi driver might note: Many affordable, mom-and-pop restaurants have gone the way of the Snowmastodon. Cheap, satisfying breakfast is rare; food delivery is legitimately pathetic, not to mention exorbitantly expensive; and nobody will praise our dining landscape for diversity. Not to fear, however; options for good meals — and deals — do exist, if you know where to look.


The single most suggested tip about Aspen dining: Order from the almighty bar menu, a timeless local cornerstone. At L’Hostaria’s 23rd anniversary celebration last week, in fact, our table of six — seated at a first-come, high-top bar table, natch — agreed unanimously: nobody could remember the last time he or she actually sat in a dining room. Those who perch at the bar in Jimmy’s, Bosq, Campo de Fiori, Cache Cache, Ellina, Steakhouse No. 316, or The Monarch (among many others) are privy to a separate, often more gently priced menu in addition to the regular restaurant menu. A lively bar scene (sometimes set to live music) provides the coziest atmosphere, anyway, as well as a chance to rub elbows with the folks who’ve lived here longest.


And gather intel on the gondola. While fast food is essentially nonexistent (McDonald’s closed in early 2016 after 30 years), fast-casual options are in solid supply. Eggs@520 (inside 520 Grill) joins the ranks of eat-in/grab-and-go a.m. fare from coffee shops including Local Coffee House, Victoria + Co., ink! Coffee, and Gorsuch Ski & Café. (Starbucks is for tourists.) Paradise Bakery and Jour de Fête breakfast burritos and drip coffee are gondy staples, too. Spring Café and JUS are clean-eating friendly, and the Aspen Art Museum’s rooftop SO Café pours buzzy Rock Canyon Coffee espresso (to enjoy onsite only).


Resident deals do exist, particularly in the offseason. Until Nov. 25, for instance, Meat & Cheese Restaurant and Farm Shop offers a standard 15% off of any food order. Tatanka Western Bistro has been running an excellent $33 prix-fixe menu (choice of appetizer, entrée and house red or white wine) anticipated to last a few more weeks. Portions are generous, and Côtes du Rhône by the glass sweetens this particular offer over dessert. End dates for offseason specials vary by venue; ask and you shall receive.


Get in the habit of carrying a spare $20 out here in the Wild West, since some joints still follow a retro cash-only policy (New York Pizza and Big Wrap, among others). Even if you end up swiping a card, cash tips are always appreciated by hardworking service industry staff and a sly way to score possible comp beverages.


Adult, Chamber, Silver, Senior, and Parent passholders receive up to 25% off food (before noon or after 2 p.m.; excluding alcohol) at a slew of on-mountain restaurants, so plan to eat lunch early or late if you’re buying. Personal picks: ramen at the Aspen Mountain Sundeck; sourdough pizza made using a 100-plus-year-old heirloom starter at Elk Camp on Snowmass; Mongolian stir-fry at The Cliffhouse atop Buttermilk; freshly baked chocolate chip cookies at Up 4 Pizza; the legendary soup bar at Gwyn’s High Alpine; and the ultimate french fries at Ullrhof.


Typically running from 4 to 6 p.m., but occasionally beginning at 3 p.m. and ending as late as 7, happy hour is worth celebrating. At Clark’s Aspen, barflies can get a really good burger and fries for $12, as well as $8 top-shelf martinis. Zane’s, HOPS Culture, Aspen Public House, Aspen Tap, Su Casa, Mi Chola, Jing, the Limelight Hotel and others offer special food and drink prices in late afternoon. Meanwhile, Aspen’s oldest watering hole, The Red Onion, ups the ante with a dual happy hour: 3-6 p.m. plus 10 p.m. to midnight.


Just like the RFTA bus system from Aspen to Snowmass, free stuff finds a place here. Find complimentary morning coffee, end-of-day hot cocoa, and mountaintop cider at all four mountains; Kind Bars likewise available; and “happy hour” s’mores in Snowmass Base Village daily (kids and adults welcome). Lifties might fire up a grill for hot dogs on a whim, and Powder Pancakes are a snow day requirement at select on-mountain restaurants for one hour (10-11 a.m.) on days that report dumps of at least 8 inches. (Sign up online for the Aspen-Snowmass Powder Alert to stay updated.)


Aspen is quirky, so it figures that an industrial development such as the Aspen Airport Business Center—located across Highway 82 from Sardy Field/ASE—boasts a few gems. Perhaps the most underrated dish: Chicken tortilla soup at Franck Thirion French Pastry (the recipe reportedly carried over from a former Mexican restaurant with fan following). Louis Swiss Pastry likewise sells savory empanadas, breakfast burritos, baked goods, and sandwiches for takeaway. While these two eateries are closed on Sunday and Saturday/Sunday, respectively, Mawa’s Kitchen is a recently expanded BLD destination, known for its weekend brunch, array of gluten-free baked goods and meal delivery service. Note: Anyone who claims to “not travel past the roundabout” from Aspen is an extremist not to be trusted.

CONSULT A COMPENDIUM (and sister site is a definitive source for accurate operating hours, open/closed status depending on seasonality; happy hour information; and PDF menus. Folks here for Thanksgiving might want to scope a short list of Turkey Day specials, ranging from a Home Team BBQ catered feast to luxurious seated affairs at area hotels.


Those on vacation with a bevy of friends or family might consider hiring a private chef to cook at the house for a night or two, instead of squeezing into overcrowded restaurants during peak weeks. One more reason to hit the bar (menu) from tip No. 1: You’ll have the chance to seek talented chef recommendations from the locals who know them.

More required reading by Amanda Rae: “34 Questions You’ve Always Wanted to Ask About Aspen,” Midwinter/Spring 2017 Issue of Aspen Sojourner.

Aspen Times Weekly

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