Foodstuff: ‘Quality without the pretense’

Restaurateurs find an appetite for attainable fine dining in the midvalley

Bull and Buck in Basalt on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Ryan Sweeney and Jenna Endsley sure seem to have a knack for working up a reporter’s appetite.

Sweeney starts talking about the 24-ounce double bone-in pork chop on the menu at their restaurant Brass Anvil — brined for 48 hours, transferred to a rotisserie, then cooked to order in a salamander broiler with a Carolina Gold tangy barbecue sauce and served with a squash puree and fruit reduction of Palisade peaches and cherries — and it doesn’t take long to realize that the Carbondale steakhouse is not the place to go if you’re only a little bit hungry.

Neither is their newest venture, the pub-style Bull and Buck in Basalt, where Endsley says the Reuben — “loaded” with bison meat, cheese and sauerkraut on fresh slices of bread from Louis Swiss Pastry — is so substantial “you have to hold it with two hands, (you) can’t put it down.”

Those who err peckish will find options like Sweeney’s recommendation of an heirloom tomato salad at Brass Anvil; there’s a comparable dish at Bull and Buck, too: a burrata caprese. Ingredients are hyper-local whenever possible, and it would be hard to source meat closer than Brass Anvil does from Nieslanik Beef, about a mile’s drive from the restaurant.

Though we’re sitting at an empty table at 2 p.m. in Silver City in Aspen for the interview (Sweeney co-owns the bar; Endsley works there a couple nights a week), it’s easy to start salivating for dinners not so far away.

Both midvalley venues are fairly new to the scene. Brass Anvil opened on Carbondale’s Main Street in early June of 2020 and Bull and Buck opened on Basalt’s Gold Rivers Court in mid-December of 2021.

Sweeney had long admired the space that would ultimately become Brass Anvil, in a building that dates back to 1908. When opportunity knocked for someone to fill it with a new restaurant, he gladly opened the door, figuring he could fulfill his aspirations to launch a fine-dining-style venture while surviving on some capital from Ryno’s Pub and Pizzeria, which he owned and operated out of the basement of the Bidwell building in downtown Aspen.

Sweeney and Endlsey signed the lease on March 1, 2020. So. Well. You know.

“Two weeks later, the world shuts down, and about six weeks after that, I get the call from Mark Hunt saying, ‘we’re knocking down the (Bidwell) building, you’ve got a month to get (Ryno’s) out,'” Sweeney said.

Sweeney said he doesn’t fault Hunt for doing what developers do and trying to make more money off of his properties.

But he’s also not convinced that Ryno’s and so many other since-closed locally owned and locally serving restaurants could open in today’s Aspen restaurant scene, where some ventures will drop millions on renovations, then spend upward of a quarter million or half a million bucks a year in rent.

Sweeney is grateful for the “amazing landlords” he has at Silver City (that would be the Elks Lodge, which gave the saloon a 10-year lease), but that sort of thing is an anomaly in Aspen these days, he said.

In the midvalley, Sweeney and Endsley and a growing cohort of other restaurateurs can still find “lease rates that set you up to succeed,” Sweeney said.

“I think the few locally operated restaurants that we have in town here are just absolutely stellar at still maintaining that and still doing that and being able to do that and good for them, I know they’re doing well also,” Sweeney said of the Aspen dining scene. “But as far as the option of opening a new place in town here, no — you have to have millions of dollars that you know you’re going to lose.”

Bull and Buck in Basalt on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Sweeney and Endsley didn’t have beaucoup bucks to compete with the places that do. But they did have the sense there is a clear appetite in the midvalley for places that offer what Sweeney describes as “quality without the pretense” at a price point that is still attainable to people who have not yet cracked a seven-digit net worth.

“Carbondale is so — Basalt, also — so diverse: You get the blue collar guys, but then you’re also seeing people who might have 10 years ago wanted to have a home in Aspen, saying, ‘Well, wait a minute,'” and thinking about moving midvalley instead, Sweeney said.

Sweeney and Endsley hope to appeal to both demographics. Most appetizers are around $10-15 at both Bull and Buck and Brass Anvil. Entrees are in the $20-$40 range, with the priciest — a 16-ounce free-range bone-out bison Delmonico at Brass Anvil and elk tenderloin medallions at Bull and Buck — ringing in at $47 and $35, respectively.

Having cleared the hurdles of opening a restaurant in the early days of the pandemic, and then another a year and a half of challenges, Endsley and Sweeney are welcoming hungry diners to the midvalley with open arms. And, if you’re lucky, an open seat.

“It’s nice to have a full restaurant and full bar and people waiting for tables now,” Endsley said. “efore it was like, ‘Oh, 20 people at once, have a seat.’ Now it’s like, ‘Everyone, get in here.'”

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