El Jebel emerging as dining hotspot

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Paul Conrad Inside Business

EL JEBEL ” El Jebel has come a long way since the days of Alta’s, a greasy spoon where old-timers gathered until the early 1980s to sip their morning coffee and swap gossip.

El Jebel and nearby Willits are the latest hot spots in the Roaring Fork Valley’s ever-changing and robust restaurant scene. The Crawford family’s El Jebel Plaza and an adjacent building are home to five well-established restaurants serving everything from a heaping helping of huevos rancheros in the morning to sushi at night.

Bella Mia has been a popular Italian restaurant since 1993. Blue Creek Grill started the following year. The plaza also boasts Sushi Ya Go-go, Atlas Pizza and Breakfast In America.

Across Highway 82 in Orchard Plaza, Zheng Asian Bistro continues to pack diners in every night. Capitol Deli is a popular lunch spot while Good Times Bakery caters to the breakfast and lunch crowd. El Jebel also is home to two fast food franchises: Subway and Wendy’s.

Less than a mile away, the fledgling Willits Town Center is home to three thriving and diverse restaurants. They provide an anchor for the village that is sprouting there.

Popular Mexican restaurant El Korita relocated from its home of nine years beside Movieland. It was joined last year by Crave Kitchen and Smoke Modern Barbecue.

A check of their parking lots on weekend evenings provides a testimonial to the restaurants’ popularity. The parking lots often overflow and diners are well-advised to plan ahead.

The restaurants obviously benefit from the midvalley’s growing population and El Jebel’s emergence as an entertainment center. People frequently go out for dinner after catching a show at Movieland or rolling a few frames at El Jebel.

But every restaurateur contacted said they also are pulling in increasing number of residents and tourists from Aspen, Snowmass Village and other parts of the valley.

Rob Zack, a chef and partner at Crave Kitchen, said he has noticed a surprising amount of traffic this winter from Snowmass Village. Driving downvalley for a good dinner is almost as easy for them as driving to Aspen ” and the meal is cheaper.

“People say, ‘We’re hearing about you on the lifts,'” Zack said.

Chris Sapp, chef and co-owner of Blue Creek Grill along with Carolyn Fisher, said the El Jebel restaurant started exclusively as a locals’ place. Now it relies about evenly on locals and visitors. It’s not unusual some nights to have reservations from diners visiting the valley from New York, Los Angles or Chicago.

Sapp was a veteran of the Aspen restaurant scene who grew tired of commuting from the midvalley when he took the initiative to open the grill in April 1994. He took over the spot previously occupied by a Chinese restaurant near the busy intersection of Highway 82 and El Jebel Road. The well-worn, blue sheet metal building where Blue Creek was originally located belied the fact that a superb restaurant was within.

Locals judged the restaurant by its good food and service rather than exterior appearance. And where locals go, tourists will follow.

Business evolved well enough that Sapp and Fisher extended their lease when the old metal shed was torn down and replaced with a beautiful new building by the Crawford family in 2002.

Blue Creek was fortunate to build its reputation and clientele for several years without a lot of competition. For a long time, Bella Mia was the only similar restaurant in El Jebel.

Bella Mia is starting its 16th year. “I’ve been there since day one,” said Joy Maniloff, co-owner with her husband Harold.

She managed the restaurant before buying it three years ago. She said she knew the business climate as well as anyone and was bullish on the Italian restaurant’s future.

Maniloff said she has built up a loyal following over the years among visitors, particularly Texans. A Houston newspaper even wrote a feature on Bella Mia as the place where Ken Lay enjoyed his last supper.

Maniloff is grateful to attract visitors, but they aren’t her bread-and-butter customers.

“You have to cater to the locals,” she said. “It’s just a great, hopping locals’ place.”

Bella Mia’s appeal comes from a combination of good food, generous servings and top-notch staff, according to Maniloff. There is low turnover among her wait staff, and one chef has been there for 13 years and another for a decade.

When competition opens up, people are curious and might check them out, but Maniloff said they keep coming to Bella Mia.

“I want us all to succeed,” she said.

The competition for the hearts and bellies of midvalley residents and visitors intensified last summer. Crave and Smoke arrived at Willits. Cuvee opened in downtown Basalt. Since then, Elle has made a splash in downtown Carbondale.

The sheer volume of all the Willits and El Jebel restaurants commands attention and benefits them all. The presence of so many good, diverse restaurants might be inspiring people to eat out more often.

“When it’s busy, everybody’s busy,” noted Sapp.

Beto Gamboa, who owns El Korita along with his wife Guadalupe, said he has more business than he expected after relocating to Willits. The restaurant was shoe-horned into its old spot next to Movieland. El Korita could only seat about 67 people and that was in close quarters.

The Gamboas purchased a larger space in Willits and increased the seating to 125, including the bar. Beto said he wanted more space so people wouldn’t have to stand too long, waiting for a table to open up. But the new location has proved so popular that people still have to stand sometimes.

“Where to the people come from?” Gamboa asked with amazement.

They estimated they serve about 600 lunches and dinners on a busy Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

The Gamboas took a risk leaving a site they knew was successful. They opened next to the theater in 1998. Some friends cautioned them that part of their success was due to that location.

Nevertheless, they purchased their Willits site for $1.3 million and spent another $900,000 on an interior finish and new tables, chairs, booths and decor.

“We’re doing great. I was kind of scared,” Beto said.

El Korita opened in its new locale last July. Now that it is established in the new spot, Gamboa expects an extremely busy summer, which midvalley restaurant owners universally said is their best season.

“It’s going to be crazy,” Gamboa said.

The three restaurants at Willits are located within Basalt’s town boundary, although the area is regarded as El Jebel by many people. The success, as measured in increased sales tax revenues for the town, is just starting to emerge. For example, the town’s 2 percent sales tax collected from “restaurants with bars” was $20,669 in September 2006. Collections from businesses in that category shot up nearly 24 percent to $25,547 for September 2007, as the Willits restaurants were coming on line. September tax receipts reflect revenues collected during the heart of summer.

Zack believes the best is to come for Crave, which is at the upper end of the El Jebel and Willits restaurants. “The reason we came down here was for the future,” he said.

Willits will evolve into more of a small city rather than a shopping center, Zack noted. Hundreds of people will be within walking distance and the restaurant will gain visibility as more shops and businesses open. The big draw will be a Whole Foods Market slated to open in late 2009 or early 2010.

Crave serves 100 to 150 dinners on a good winter night, Zack said. The numbers swell to 190 to 200 during busy summer nights, when the Roaring Fork Club golf community is fully occupied and anglers flock to the midvalley.

Zack and his partner, Todd Slossberg, bought their site at Willits, confident that the booming midvalley was the place to be. Zack remains confident that all the restaurants will benefit with time.

“Right now, everybody’s fighting for a small piece of the pie,” he said.


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