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County to consider expanding night use of Ajax restaurants

Allyn Harvey

The trend toward nighttime dining in restaurants on Aspen Mountain took another step forward this week.

The Pitkin County commissioners agreed Wednesday night to consider two proposals for expanded evening use of Gwyn’s on Aspen and the Sundeck restaurant.

Gwyn’s is located at the bottom of Ruthie’s Run, overlooking town; the Sundeck sits atop Aspen Mountain, looking out over Castle Creek.

The question of extending the hours of commerce on Aspen Mountain came up during a review of the Aspen Skiing Co.’s compliance with the conditions that were imposed in 1998, when the county commissioners agreed to limited night use of the Sundeck.

The Skico, which owns the Sundeck, is allowed to ferry dinner patrons to the Sundeck on the gondola eight nights each month, as long as it limits the number of people at the facility and has everyone off the mountain by 10:30 p.m.

Gwyn’s did not have a dinner menu until earlier this year, after the county commissioners reluctantly agreed to six nights of dining between mid-February and the end of March.

“I’m so thrilled with how it worked out,” said owner Gwyn Knowlton. “After 25 years of lunches, I finally get to do dinner menus.” Before taking over the restaurant at the base of Ruthie’s Run, she ran Gwyn’s High Alpine restaurant in the Alpine Springs section of Snowmass Mountain.

Yesterday’s meeting was the first formal review of Skico’s compliance with the county’s conditions for night use. “Staff is not aware of any issues or complaints with regard to other limitations such as access, noise and lighting,” reads a memo prepared for the commissioners by the county Planning Department.

Skico is hoping the lack of complaints and its compliance with the agreement will translate into an approval for expanded operations.

Skico Vice President Eric Calderon, who manages the Little Nell hotel and the Sundeck restaurant, said operations at the Sundeck have been very successful – every Full Moon Dinner, the only night each month that the restaurant is open to the public, has been sold out this winter. But he noted that there have been some problems.

One of those problems became painfully apparent last July, when bad weather forced a wedding party off the mountain at the very last minute. Lightning made it impossible to use the gondola, but the agreement prohibited the use of cars and trucks at the Sundeck.

“In this case,” Calderon explained in a letter to the commissioners, “an entire wedding of 160 people had to be relocated to the hotel [the Little Nell] within a two-hour period. This included food, decorations and man power. Had we been able to make a call because of weather and drive guests up the back road in vans, the wedding would have proceeded and the summer storm would have blown through. As it was, the event was a catastrophe.”

Calderon’s letter also said a fair amount of business was lost because of other restrictions. Some groups that inquired declined to book the Sundeck because of the time restriction that requires the gondola be turned off by 10:30 p.m.

“Most good parties don’t end at 10 p.m., which is when we have to wind things up now,” he said.

Some groups passed on the Sundeck because they wanted to use it in June or September, the two months of the summer when use is banned. And still more bookings were lost because the agreement limits to between 180 and 225 the number of people who can be up there at any given time.

Every available night through the coming summer has been booked. “We’d like a few more nights,” Calderon said.

So would Gwyn. Every one of the six nights open to the public in the last six or so weeks has been booked solid. Patrons get a five-course meal, which they select from a full menu, and a ride up the mountain on a Snowcat for $75.

She said she’d like to be open at least one night a week through all of next winter, with additional nights open during the busiest weeks of the year.

She said her night operations have gone off without a hitch, so far. “I think the best indication of that is that my neighbors at the bottom of the mountain have been so positive.”

Gwyn and Calderon expect to be back before the county commissioners later this summer with proposed changes to the Aspen Mountain Master Plan, which governs activities and development on the mountain.

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