Fine dining in Aspen for less " the bar menu |

Fine dining in Aspen for less " the bar menu

Joel Stonington
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
The rainbow trout from the bar menu at Cache Cache is a delicious full meal for just $16. Numerous Aspen eateries offer a bar menu to attract working locals.(Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times)

ASPEN ” There are 106 Ruth’s Chris Steak Houses in this country, but the only one with a bar menu is in Aspen.

“The locals demanded it,” said bartender Jeff Picasso.

When the restaurant opened in January 2007, there was no bar menu, but locals complained so much that the company reacted within months. Now, Aspenites can get a lobster bisque for $9 or a prime-steak sandwich for $15.

For those who aren’t already in the know, nearly all of the bars in Aspen’s upscale restaurants have a small, cheaper menu of tasty treats ranging from mere appetizers to full meals.

Ruth’s Chris started its bar menu mainly because every other high-end restaurant in town has one. In the end, the chain caught on because it’s good for the restaurant’s bottom line; it’s equally good for locals who want incredibly good food at affordable prices.

Bartenders and restaurant owners say the bar menus bring in early diners to fill the bar areas ” often at the entrance to a restaurant ” and make it look more crowded.

“It’s a line-of-sight thing,” said Jimmy McManus, bartender at Cache Cache. “When you walk in, there are people sitting at the bar.”

According to McManus, Cache Cache was one of the first restaurants to feature a bar menu in Aspen and the trend just caught on. Regardless of how it started, however, the menus bring in people who might otherwise go home and save the money. They may not have $50 to spend on a three-course meal, but they’ll come in for a quick bite before a movie or show at the Wheeler Opera House.

Simply put, bar menus make it easy for locals to explore area restaurants without emptying their bank accounts. L’Hostaria has an exceptional salmon dinner. Jimmy’s is known for everything from mac and cheese to crab cakes. Even Olives, at the St. Regis, can get you out the door with a full stomach for under $20.

“Having cheap menu options allows us to sit down with friends for a bite and a beer in a venue that we probably wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise,” said local Dylan Hoffman. “They’re a great way to add a little vitality to our town, and without them we’d probably be relegated to [New York Pizza] for in-town dining.”

Let’s be serious ” many of the people who eat from so-called bar menus are not drinking alcohol. On an average Tuesday night last week, about half of the people seeking bar menu action at Cache Cache were drinking and half were not.

So a bar menu is sort of a misnomer. Although the food is consumed in the bar, it’s really more of a “menu du local” ” something created specifically so working residents can afford to patronize upscale, tourist-oriented eateries. Still, some people are there because they like the laid-back vibe in the bar.

“The bar atmosphere is better than a formal dinner,” said Brandon Taylor, from Snowmass Village, who said he often eats at Jimmy’s and Elevation. “The bar menus are cheap and tasty.”

However, not all bar menus are created equal. More than one Aspenite has been disappointed to receive a dish with only three raviolis, when they expected a full-blown meal. Sometimes, items side by side on menus have significantly different amounts of food. For example, the barbecued shrimp on the Ruth’s Chris bar menu has only five shrimp for a hefty $13. Grab their $15 prime-steak sandwich, however, and you’ll be full for the rest of the night.

It’s different at Cache Cache, where the four items not listed as appetizers on the bar menu are more than full meals. The rainbow trout is absurdly delicious and filling, and the $16 price tag is a great value when compared to items such as the $44 veal porterhouse on the regular menu.

It can be hard to figure out which bar menu items are appetizers and which could be full meals. This can make a diner yearn for Prague, where menus list the weight of the food.

If you’re in doubt or want to know more, then just ask the bartender. Bartenders are more than happy to chat about a given meal or, for that matter, anything else you might ask. Plus, that good service at the bar is one of the added perks of eating at a nice place, so take advantage of that too.

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