Aspen Mountain restaurants old and new
Aspen’s evolution as a ski resort is a story portrayed clearly by its three on-mountain restaurants.Conjure up some images in your head of the Sundeck, Bonnie’s and Ruthie’s and you’ll see what we mean. The first was once a tiny wooden outpost atop Aspen Mountain, but is now known for world-class customer service, upscale cafeteria dining and the private, members-only club within its walls.The second serves as testimony to Aspen’s rich skiing history – a modest structure full of local lore and tradition. And the third is an exercise in over-ambition – a building that now sits empty on Aspen Mountain’s west side, proof that even during prosperous times an ill-conceived business plan is only one ski season away from failure.All of these qualities are inherent to Aspen, the town and the ski area. They’re parts of this town that work together (or don’t work together), and make living and skiing here a multifaceted experience.The real question is, what do you want for lunch?
Once just an octagonal, intimate mountain restaurant that offered simple belly-filling fare, the Sundeck atop Aspen Mountain has undergone profound changes in the last 50 years.Knocked down and rebuilt in 1999, the Sundeck is now a high-end Rocky Mountain lodge, both inside and out. The structure resembles many multimillion-dollar Aspen mansions with vaulted ceilings and elaborate log architecture. The dining options follow suit with no less than three restaurants inside: a private club, a sit-down operation with multi-course meals, and an upscale cafeteria for mere mortals.Memories of the old Sundeck still burn strong, however. In 1946 it was operated by Howard and Jean Awrey, and in 1953 Paul and Hanna Wirth, along with their five children, moved into the building and managed it for 15 years. The Birrfelder family was next at the job.
“It was great, it was wonderful,” said Brigitte Birrfelder, who spent all of her childhood winters living in the Sundeck and now owns Bonnie’s restaurant. Her dad, Peter Birrfelder, took over as caretaker of the Sundeck in 1968.For the first 18 winters of her life, Birrfelder lived at the Sundeck (summers were spent at Lake Tahoe) and her parents were caretakers for 28 years. An only child, Birrfelder would ski to school and return home on either her dad’s snowmobile or the chairlifts. “Having first tracks in powder on the way to school, it was awesome,” she laughed. After school, Birrfelder had nightly chores, cleaning and prepping for the following day. But she also had great birthdays and slumber parties with friends at 11,212 feet.Birrfelder graduated from Aspen High and moved to California for college, but Aspen and the Sundeck were always on her mind.
“The day I graduated was the day I moved back to Aspen,” she said.So the day the old Sundeck was leveled was a sad one for Birrfelder.”It was sad but also good, I guess,” she said. “The new Sundeck fits with the new Aspen image better.”That’s part of the idea, said Tracy Duhe, the manager at today’s Sundeck. In 1999, the old structure was razed in favor of a new building that would rise to the town’s new standards. These days when you’re standing under 30-foot ceilings, you can ponder whether you’d like one of four freshly made soups for lunch, something stir-fried from the wok station, or a salad tossed to your exact specifications.But that’s just the cafeteria. The Sundeck also features a 60-seat, sit-down restaurant, Benedict’s, with tablecloths and a menu featuring a $15 soup-salad-sandwich combo, among other selections.
Benedict’s shares a service kitchen with the Aspen Mountain Club, a private club on the west side of the building. The Aspen Mountain Club’s dining accommodations are the most luxurious of all, with thick carpeting and upholstered chairs, chandeliers, a separate full bar and a locker room downstairs.All three restaurants within the Sundeck share the same sprawling views of the Elk Mountains, bright sunlight through the windows and food prepared in the same basement kitchen. The Sundeck also boasts a regular masseuse presence, hand lotion in the bathrooms and a towering fireplace with benches on all four sides.”When people come to Aspen from other areas, they have certain expectations,” Duhe said. “The Skico’s restaurants are striving to reach those expectations.”
What you see isn’t exactly what you get at Bonnie’s. Its blue-grey exterior and sprawling deck with views of Pump House Hill speak of cheeseburgers, french fries and beer, but this is a restaurant where history runs deep, as do traditional recipes.Bonnie’s was originally known as Gretl’s, after the founder and owner Gretl Uhl, who ran the Aspen Mountain restaurant from 1966 to 1980.Uhl was famous for her homemade meals that fused traditional Bavarian and classic American recipes. Fresh soups, breads and desserts greeted guests daily, and the former German ski racer was best known for her apple strudel.When Uhl retired in 1980, Bonnie Rayburn took over and ran the rustic eatery for 20 years. Rayburn changed the name to Bonnie’s, but that was about all that changed. When Brigitte Birrfelder took over a few years ago, she sought to continue the tradition.”We have a lot of the same recipes Bonnie had,” Birrfelder said. “Gretl was known for her apple strudel and we carried on her tradition … We still make it the same way she made it.”
The interior, too, remains largely unchanged.”It’s really cool, real rustic, not fancy at all, and they serve old-fashioned rustic mountain food,” said Christine Hicks, who served as caretaker of Bonnie’s the last two winters. “It’s fabulous food, but very, very laid-back and rustic. They have great wines and stuff for fancy people, but not fancy arrangements.”Caretaking is another unbroken tradition at Bonnie’s – Hicks said she enjoyed her two years living on the mountain in the restaurant atmosphere. The days were busy with crowds and stomping ski boots. But in the evenings, when everyone had left, and they’d completed their prep work for the next day, a new world of silence and snow came to life.”The sunrises and sunsets were just so tremendous,” Hicks recalled. “The sun going down lit up the mountain a neon blue. They were just perfect days.”
Group photos in the restaurant hearken back to good times on the restaurant’s sunny deck, and the walls are adorned with old skis and ice skates, along with a picture of the restaurant’s matriarch, Gretl Uhl.Bonnie’s opens this year on Dec. 18, so when we spoke to Birrfelder about the upcoming season, she was in the midst of a food-ordering blitz. Among other things, she’s ordered 60 cases of Rome apples from Paonia for Gretl’s famous strudel.She’s also going to wine tastings, hiring staff (although, from last year’s 40 employees, 32 will come back this year) getting a menu together and cleaning out the space.Birrfelder realizes that her restaurant is worlds away from the Sundeck. But that’s the essence of its charm.”We’re like your mom-and-pop, homemade-food store,” she said. “Along with Gwyn and George at High Alpine [on Snowmass Mountain] we’re some of the only people doing this anymore.”
One restaurant sits empty on Aspen Mountain – a dark gray building with bright red trim that seems to blend into the snow, unnoticed.Ruthie’s restaurant was the brainchild of mining claim owner and then-Aspen resident Frank Lerner, according to Bill Kane, the Aspen Skiing Co.’s vice president of planning. Lerner, who has since moved away but owned the clothing chain of the same name, approached the Skico about building and operating an on-mountain restaurant.”I think the philosophy in those days was that Skico was really highly focused on just ski operations, and most of the restaurants, if not all, were leased out,” Kane said. “It fit the business plan for another restaurant to provide a service on the mountain, so they pursued it.”
The restaurant was built at the base of Ruthie’s Run with a large deck and great views over Aspen. It had a luxurious reservations-only dining room and bar, as well as a cafeteria. It went through several incarnations before the Skico closed the doors. For a while it served fresh pastas and salads as La Baita, and then Gwyn Knowlton of Snowmass’ High Alpine ran it until Skico gave up in fall 2001.”I never remember it being a totally happy sort of circumstance at that restaurant – it always struggled,” Kane said. “It’s tough to drive business to that side of the mountain for lunch.”Adding the high-speed lift on Ruthie’s Run was expected to give the restaurant a shot in the arm, but it didn’t. The success of the Sundeck eventually proved that people most like to eat on the top of the mountain.”The problem with Ruthie’s is that a lot of people don’t ski over there – it’s too difficult for intermediate skiers, and for a lot of people it’s hard and icy over there,” Birrfelder said. “There are not enough skiers on this mountain for three restaurants.”To Kane, the failure of Ruthie’s restaurant is just part of running a resort.
“That’s the nature of business – you take risks,” he said.Skico recently applied for a permit to hold private parties at the restaurant. The liquor license application was turned down by Pitkin County earlier this month when the county determined that the application did not show enough local support. Skico plans to resubmit the application with more signatures of support from people who live near the western base of the mountain.Until then, Ruthie’s restaurant will remain covered in snow, full of empty tables and chairs waiting to be filled.Steve Benson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is email@example.com