Drinking down the ages
Face it, fellow travelers, looking for a true locals watering hole in Aspen is a lot like chasing a particularly comely ghost – either it can’t be seen, it can’t be caught, or it can’t be enjoyed.Most of the bars that would fit the definition of “locals watering hole” either have been closed long ago and largely forgotten by all but a few crusty old-timers, or have been altered irredeemably by new ownership, higher prices and a tonier atmosphere.In keeping with this week’s celebration of the rare bar that still strives to be a locals joint (see this week’s cover story), a serenely tipsy stumble down memory lane seemed like just the right accompaniment.
This informal catalog would be remiss if it did not mention right off the Hotel Jerome Bar, which happens to be located not 50 yards from my desk, was long considered a veritable annex to The Aspen Times office and has been the locals watering hole for most of Aspen’s history.The J-Bar’s qualifications for that title, unhappily, have suffered through recent changes in ownership. The price of drinks has clambered skyward, far outpacing any rise in earnings among most of our staff, and the atmosphere has changed from one of cozy informality to brittle social posing.The latest shock, for me, was a $15 charge for one (1) tiny single-malt Scotch – a relatively low-end single malt at that. I am now an official member of the Times employee boycott of the place – except, of course, when a friend offers to buy me a drink there.
My first recollection of a visit to a bar in Aspen harks back to the late 1970s, when I moved to Colorado from Wisconsin to become a low-paid journalist living downvalley. I was working at The Glenwood Post daily newspaper, where I had invented the title and duties of an “arts and entertainment editor” to justify frequent trips to Aspen to cover bands and other events.Many of those trips ended up at a place that quickly earned a special place in my mental pantheon of memorable establishments – Rick’s American Cafe, in the same basement space where Belly Up is now.The playbill there was resplendent with fine local, regional and national acts, and the bar was always a focal point for the action no matter who was playing. From its days as Rick’s through the Paradise, China Club, High Altitude Paradise and other incarnations, it’s been a hot spot for Aspen’s nightlife and, until recently, was pretty affordable.Also in the late ’70s, I became an occasional customer at The Pub, located in the basement of the Wheeler Opera House, where there are only offices now. A rough place was The Pub, where the air was dense with smoke, drugs were freely consumed, fistfights were plentiful, and conversation had to take place at high volume. It was a great place for short exposures, but staying for any length of time tended to be hazardous.
Another rough spot was Chisolm’s, a country-western bar, again located in a basement (is there a theme developing here?). This one was underneath the equally long-gone Crossroads Drugs store, which occupied the ground floor of the Independence hotel at the corner of Cooper and Galena.I knew a few women who wouldn’t set foot in Chisolm’s, and some guys, too, for fear of the dark reputation it had. But I always found it entertaining, with cheap brews, friendly women and mostly tolerable men. I wasn’t much of a country-western fan, but a rowdy, high-energy bar is fun no matter what the musical background might be.Jake’s Abbey, in a basement beneath a restaurant (I think it was called Stats) on Galena Street, is now the site of a home furnishings store. The Abbey reportedly was one of John Denver’s favorite venues before he got famous. By in my day, manager Kurt Brown still was showcasing local acts that sometimes went on to bigger things. A guitar and vocals duo named Meyers and O’Flynn comes to mind, comprising Scott Meyers and Pat Flynn (the added the “O” for artistic effect). After one national act, New Grass Revival, had played at Jake’s a couple of times, they took Flynn away with them to Nashville for a stint as their guitarist.
Moving away from music venues, The Slope, in the basement of the Aspen Mine Co. restaurant on the Hyman Avenue mall, offered a place to see a Warren Miller movie for free, with quiet drinks that we all could afford.Across the mall was the Paragon, which in the late ’70s and early ’80s became Aspen’s premier gay bar. It had an auxiliary space to one side called The Parlor Room, complete with ornate sofas, dainty tables and a plush bar all its own. There were those who wouldn’t go in there, either, but homophobia has never been one of my vices, and I enjoyed the hell out of the place.On the other side of Aspen’s business core was O’Leary’s Pub, a basic bar next to Little Annie’s Eating House on Hyman Avenue, where you could always count on the sustaining qualities of a slice of pizza and a beer.Andre’s, a three-story restaurant and bar on upper Galena Street, which boasted a third-floor disco and a retractable roof on top, had a slightly upper-crust feel to it, but it was a great place to meet people. The drinks weren’t outrageously priced, just a little steep, so you wouldn’t plan on spending the whole night there unless such considerations didn’t matter to you.As a kind of punctuation to the idea that Aspen’s reputation is as much based on its party possibilities as on its ski slopes, there were two wild spots right at the base of Aspen Mountain – The Tippler at The Tipple Inn (commonly known as “The Crippler”) and The Little Nell Bar (before today’s luxury hotel).The Tipper, off the western edge of the base of the Little Nell ski run, vacillated between being a disco (most of the time) and having live music (only very occasionally), and excelled at its role as a meat market for the town’s unattached of all sexes.At The Little Nell itself, skiers would eat burgers and other fare, lounge and drink away the daylight hours. At night, though, it became a nightclub where local bands would pound away far into the night, and vast numbers of dancers and drinkers would soak it all up. It was a dark place, so you’d better know what your date/drinking buddy/chaperone looked like before you opened the door. I never ate there at night, so I have no idea if they even had food once the sun went down. But the atmosphere was ultra convivial, the booze was affordable, and if you didn’t know someone in the room when you entered, you would before you left.
Aspen had a sushi war even back in those days, when a small sushi bar called Sushi Masa opened in the upstairs location that is now New York Pizza, offering all-you-could-eat sushi for $10 on certain nights and giving Takah Sushi a run for its money.Masa, the enterprising owner, also started a bar on Main Street called Legends, right across the street from the Hotel Jerome in what is now a bank. It was a sports bar, where rugby players would hang out before McStorlie’s (now Zane’s Tavern) was opened, and where you could get great food including sushi.Unfortunately Masa liked having fun more than he liked paying attention to business, and the place closed rather quickly. But while it was going, it was a popular spot.Bars, particularly the kind that cater to a local clientele, come and go quickly no matter where they are. We all know that. Take the highly popular Howling Wolf, a Hopkins Avenue hot spot that for a couple of years was the epicenter of Aspen’s nightlife. The locale been through several reincarnations since then, but never again has it achieved the popularity it had as The Wolf.It seems that in Aspen, where real estate values and rents seem to only move upward, while wages stagnate or decline, the true locals bar might have been added to the endangered species list long ago. If only someone had been paying more attention.This listing of old favorites is far from complete. If you’d like to chime in with your own memories of bars listed here (or ones that we missed), click on the “comments” button of the website – that’s aspentimes.com, under the Aspen Times Weekly heading, if you’re not there already. Or, e-mail John Colson at firstname.lastname@example.org.