Hickory House remains Aspen’s original roadhouse
After 40 years, Hickory House Ribs still stands sentinel at Aspen’s S-curves
Even when more than 1,700 miles away from home in the Florida Keys, longtime local Stoney Davis anticipates his first meal back in Aspen. After landing at the Aspen airport on Saturday evening and taking a scheduled COVID test on Sunday morning, Davis, along with his wife, Lynn Russell, will seek a simple joy that has sustained him for decades: breakfast at the Hickory House.
“They have a joiner’s table that we go sit at all the time,” Davis says by phone, of the round 10-top in the restaurant’s main dining room. “There’s no telling who’ll show up and sit down with you.”
Davis, 78, first visited the Hickory House in the early 1970s, back when it was owned by Bill Stone.
“Around then, the Red Onion changed hands, and the new owners said they were not gonna cater to the local riffraff,” he recalls. “Bill died in 1988. On his headstone in Red Butte Cemetery it says ‘He catered to local riffraff!’ Go out there and look: block 72.”
Back then, Davis and friends would gather at the Hickory House beginning at 6 a.m., for coffee, toast, and socializing before dispersing to work or wherever. Years later, when Paul Dioguardi rescued the barbecue joint in 1998 following a lackluster streak, he “switched it to 8 o’clock,” Davis says.
Dioguardi won’t ever forget the backlash of the decision to open later: It’s memorialized in a letter to the editor Davis wrote to the local papers, “to the tune of, ‘Tourists eat my ribs, locals kiss my ass!’” he quips good-naturedly.
Any resentment among Hickory House regulars has long since dissipated, though, much like the hickory-wood smoke that wafts above the S-curves at Aspen’s west entrance nearly 24-7. Aside from that shift in opening time and last year’s thorough yet respectful interior remodel, consistency is a defining trait of the Hickory House. The homecooked food in hearty portions at reasonable prices, daily lunch specials, dedicated staff (average tenure: eight years), and status as the longest-running delivery operation around (plus picnic catering or pig roasts for 151 or more)—all of this creates an atmosphere that locals can’t help but love.
“I’m in town 48 or 50 weeks of the year, and I eat lunch there probably five, six days a week” in a normal year, Davis continues, followed by an audible chuckle from Russell in the background. Since the coronavirus pandemic hit, Davis goes for an $8.99 BLT—takeout, typically. Or the famed barbecued ribs and a “giant salad” (a staple available in six varieties, including one with kale) for dinner.
“It’s the comfort, the waitstaff,” Davis explains. “I know most of ’em by name—and they know me, know my wife. They take care of us.”
COVID-19 has hit all businesses hard—especially restaurants, which were operating at 25% capacity until Colorado moved to Code Red on Tuesday. At the Hickory House, that meant 30 seats indoors across two large dining rooms. In November, Dioguardi was forced to cancel the free-to-all Thanksgiving feast he inherited when he bought the business 23 years ago. The crew smokes about 55 turkeys and prepares hundreds of pounds of from-scratch sides for the occasion, one of the largest and longest-standing holiday community traditions in Aspen.
Despite restrictions, Dioguardi has managed to keep staff employed by moving them to takeout and delivery. In March he upgraded the number of phone lines from two to five.
“We specialize in takeout,” he says, adding that to-go orders in a normal year comprise about 35% of Hickory House business. “Now it’s 85%. We don’t recommend fries, onion rings, or fried catfish, but the ribs, pork, beef, chicken—all of it travels really well.”
Slow-smoked meats are a signature, including award-winning, baby-back ribs imported from Denmark (and shipped on demand). “We call it ‘the filet mignon of ribs’ because there’s no visible fat and a lot of meat for the size,” Dioguardi says. “I got started in this business when I was 14 [living in a northwest suburb of Chicago], traveling around the country doing rib competitions. I saw every cut and size of rib. The Danish rib is much smaller [than a St. Louis rib], but the consistency and quality is second to none.”
Nearly everything on the menu is homemade: pork green chile, baked beans, potatoes, coleslaw, ranchero sauce for the Carlos Special, and three kinds of barbecue sauce and a hot sauce (all bottled for distribution since Dioguardi came aboard). Sausage gravy for the popular biscuit breakfast (served daily until 2:30 p.m.) is prepared using pork custom-blended according to Dioguardi’s mother’s recipe, stuffed at Rose Packing in Dioguardi’s hometown of Barrington, Illinois.
Growing up in an Italian family, the second to youngest of eight children, “We didn’t eat out a lot,” Dioguardi notes. “You hang out in the kitchen and see what Mom’s making.”
That influence is clear here. Pork and beef brisket are smoked overnight in two Southern Pride smokers outdoors behind the building; ribs and chicken linger up to five hours. Mac and cheese is made with cavatappi spirals that are always al dente despite being smothered in four cheeses. Recently Dioguardi began using poultry exclusively from Englewood’s Red Bird Farms and added dry-rubbed, smoked chicken wings to the menu.
“The best thing, for me, is a half-chicken, right out of the smoker,” Dioguardi says. “It’s a tough job, going in and out, but staff’s been great. Manny, our morning cook, has been here 28-plus years! You always know Manny is gonna show up.”
Customers keep coming, too, for dine-in or takeout. The family friendly vibe is similar over in Parker, Colo., where Dioguardi opened a second Hickory House in July 2003. He fully remodeled the two-story building with 4,000 square feet on each level and a walk-out basement that allows smoker-cooking indoors. Dioguardi relocated there from April to June this year to handle the “crazy” number of takeout and catering orders coming in during the state’s stay-home period.
Now, having weathered the 18-month Castle Creek Bridge reconstruction in 2018, last year’s interior revamp, and now the coronavirus pandemic—all as an independent business owner—Dioguardi sees light at the end of the tunnel.
“I’m looking forward to getting through these next three, four, five months, pumping out a good product at a good price,” he says. “I think it’s gonna be a huge summer.”
Besides, the Hickory House has a dedicated watchkeeper as old as the restaurant itself: The giant brown bear, teeth out, standing guard from the rooftop.
Amanda Rae is the editor of the “The Aspen Cookbook,” out now as a fundraiser for local restaurants through the Aspen Board of Realtors/YPN Aspen. AspenCookbook.com
Hickory House Ribs
Breakfast & Lunch: 8 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Dinner: 5-9 p.m.
Takeout & Delivery
730 W. Main St.
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The new Bud Light Music on the Mountains series is hosting DJs and bands for mid-day pop-up concerts for skiers and snowboarders.