Food Matters: Meet Me at Ullrhof
Good vibes and a great Bloody Mary at the ‘old restaurant on the hill’ in Snowmass
Big Burn Lift, Snowmass
Open 9 a.m.- 3 p.m.
Last call 3:45 p.m.
Heads turn when Craig Witthoeft builds a bloody mary at Ullrhof, the mid-mountain burger joint and bar near the Big Burn lift on Snowmass. “As people are waiting, they’re watching me embellish it,” he says one Friday afternoon, “putting in Sriracha, and horseradish, and cracked black pepper, and freshly squeezed lime…and here comes the bacon!” With theatrical flourish honed over 30 years working behind bars and in restaurants, Witthoeft lays two strips of glossy, crispy bacon horizontally atop the drink. He doesn’t have to tell me that this move is to prevent the dreaded soggy strip, but he does point out that the smoked bacon is dusted with brown sugar, crushed red pepper, and cayenne pepper, then oven-roasted until candied and bubbling.
To the celery salt-rimmed pint glass (actually a compostable clear cup, used at all Aspen Skiing Co. properties since COVID-19 hit), Witthoeft has also added two dill pickle spears and a skewer holding a jumbo pimento-stuffed olive, cherry tomato, yellow bell pepper square, and mini pepperoni slices. Folks can order the concoction with vodka or tequila, but it’s damn fine without any booze at all.
Witthoeft’s spicy bacon bloody mary is a meal in itself.
“‘Over the top’ is what I’m hearing,” says the bartender and Ullrhof assistant manager. “When I get here in the morning, I (make), like, 50 of these skewers for the bloodys, because it gets busy quick.”
For the past five days, he says, the same four guys have bellied up to his bar at 9:35 a.m. for a round of these signature cocktails. On Saturdays, one regular family visits for lunch, sitting at a favorite table by the window “like clockwork,” Witthoeft says. He knows their order by heart: “Dad has (the) bacon bloody mary, Mom drinks Champagne. They get the triple cheeseburger; Mom gets the soup. For dessert they always get a chocolate shake and a large chocolate chip cookie. Every weekend (we’ve been open) this season. It’s pretty cool.”
Thanks in large part to Witthoeft, here full time Thursday through Monday until closing day April 18, Ullrhof — pronounced óo-ler-hôf, according to the red uniform shirts worn by the grill and fry guys; the name is a mash-up of Ullr, the Norse god associated with winter sports, and the German word for “courtyard” — has become a popular Snowmass destination in the past five years. He cites a perfect storm of variables: Ullrhof’s location at the convergence of multiple ski trails; its relatively small size compared to larger cafeterias, which allows for a tight-knit crew, including restaurant manager of four seasons Kendall Wood; and even its retro-diner vibe with low-slung, dark-wood ceiling beams and Bauhaus-esque red, blue and gray carpeting.
“As beautiful as the remodels are, people like the old,” Witthoeft says, noting that many venues nearby — Gwyn’s and Sam’s, in particular — have been renovated in recent years. “We’re really fortunate here at the old restaurant on the hill.”
Spanning a vibrant margarita to variations on the hot toddy and mulled spiced wine, Ullrhof’s cold and hot cocktail menu is a big draw. (Legendary hand-cut french fries, too.) This morning, Witthoeft prepared a big batch of “batter” for his scratch-made hot buttered rum: “I sauté brown sugar, butter, powdered sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and—one of my secret ingredients—a little bit of melted vanilla ice cream.” Once that cools and solidifies, Witthoeft scoops out a spoonful of batter to mix with a splash hot water, a hearty pour of dark rum, and a cinnamon stick swizzle.
“People are so appreciative of a place to warm up, a hot drink, and somebody paying attention to them,” says Witthoeft, who tends to speak in sound bites. “Customer service is king!” he reminds me, more than once.
Before Ullrhof, Witthoeft manned the bar at Bumps Restaurant at the base of Buttermilk for 15 years. There he became known among kids as “the whipped cream guy,” who would add an extra puff of fluffy stuff to the tops of hot chocolates. Today at Ullrhof, he delivers a martini glass filled with bite-size chocolate candy (mini peanut butter cups, Kit Kats) to each table as a sweet finale.
“I’ve worked at the Sundeck, the Merry-Go-Round, Cloud Nine’s end-of-season party with the Champagne,” explains Witthoeft, an avid skier since he moved to the valley 23 years ago by way of California, where he spent 20 years after growing up in Chicago. “On-mountain restaurants compared with base-of-the-mountain restaurants are a little bit different. I go to work (at Ullrhof) and it’s kind of like I’m on vacation, too. The energy is so good!”
Amid COVID-19 protocols — tables are spaced far apart and all 16 barstools have been cleared from the bar, per capacity restrictions—Ullrhof’s dining room resembles a safe oasis. The usual influx of international travelers is noticeably absent. The Ullrhof Games, which usually include beer pong, quarters, and a bicycle-powered margarita blender during Aspen Snowmass Spring Jam, will likely be canceled for the second year in a row. Yet business has been steady.
“The only reason I came in here the first time was because my boyfriend told me, ‘The bartender is the best guy. Go sit down and he’ll take care of you!'” notes my friend Ashley Grimmel, beaming at the memory. “He met (Craig) one time!”
We watch Witthoeft glide about the room, water pitcher in hand to refill cups. As a self-proclaimed Snowmass ambassador, he always asks, “How’s the snow out there?” Upon mention of a birthday, he’ll produce a cookie and ice cream sundae with candles within moments.
“We have a shotski behind the bar — ever done a shotski?” he asks when I return on Sunday. Nearby, a table of three guys on a ski vacation from Jackson, Mississippi, perk up. “That shotski!” one of them exclaims, recounting a fearless journey to the base — yesterday afternoon.
Witthoeft beams with pride. A few years ago he “quit” bartending, and became a manager at Ullrhof instead. The hiatus was short-lived. “It’s been a long, cool trip at the Ullrhof. We’re lucky to be out here,” he muses, standing behind his long, narrow, one-well bar with million-dollar views to snowy trails beyond.
“I’m a Chicago kid, born in the city. I didn’t grow up in a ski town,” Witthoeft adds, “but I feel like I did now.”