Willoughby: When the Sundeck’s burgers topped all
Legends & Legacies
To dine at high altitude enhances an otherwise ordinary culinary venture. Slopeside restaurants compete ferociously for top reviews, partially because well-heeled, elderly customers may care as much about food as they value a well-groomed slope.
As a youngster, I ate my lunch in a hurry at home. During freezing weather I slowed only slightly, to prolong the time I could stay inside. Eateries were limited in Aspen, as were the number of items on their menus.
But I don’t recall going hungry, nor do I remember that I suffered for lack of options.
Living two blocks from the bottom of Little Nell meant I could take off my skis, dash home and return to the slopes at will. Mother would have a pot of hot soup ready, supplemented with a grilled Velveeta-cheese-on-Wonder-Bread sandwich. She would check in on my day while I reheated and refueled.
When I began eating lunch on the mountain, I could choose the Sundeck at the top of the mountain, the Skiers Chalet at the bottom of Lift One, or whatever restaurant-du-jour scrambled to succeed at the bottom of Little Nell.
The Sundeck was my go-to choice. I could meet friends and family there, toast my toes beside a roaring fireplace, and count on the staff to serve food quickly. After the long two- to three-lift journey to the top of the mountain, a meal at the Sundeck allowed me to continue to ski the upper mountain and avoid interruption imposed by descent to a lower-level cafe.
Hamburgers likely won out as the Sundeck’s most popular item, at least they did for me. The chefs added a European flair to the menu with bratwurst, something I did not ever eat as a kid. They included cold sandwiches and a few other items. The hot dogs tempted some kids, but most of us chose between a cheeseburger and a hamburger. That decision more often reflected the coins in our pocket than our culinary preference.
Efficiency ruled, so customers applied their own condiments with civility, as they stood at a table near the fireplace. Self-serve bowls of mustard, ketchup, onions and sliced pickles preceded the ubiquitous plastic grab-and-gobble packets of today. On days when we had no money, hunger might drive us to nibble a handful of pickles and tolerate a sour tongue for several runs.
Not travelers, we did not recognize our own riches — hamburgers of the highest quality, fresh ground daily by Albert Bishop at Beck and Bishop. Aspen’s restaurant fare did not vary much. Most establishments featured steak. In the days before giant feedlots, Colorado beef — range fed with a hint of mountain sage — pleased every palate. People certainly did not travel to Aspen for seafood.
The meat-and-potatoes diet, for kids, translated as hamburgers and chips or fries. We might buy a candy bar, but often those sweet treats survived a hike homeward within our parkas’ pockets. The frigid air rendered them hard as rocks by the time we remembered to eat them.
Much later, when we were in high school, my friends and I discovered the delights of the Skiers Chalet. We thought their burgers tasted even more delicious than those of the Sundeck, and the chalet offered a head start. The No. 1 lift line, from the Chalet up the mountain, had cleared by noon. That provided a time saving alternative to the No. 3 lift at the top of the mountain, which required too long a wait for impatient teens.
At a high school track meet in Grand Junction we found an unbelievable anomaly. We could buy three hamburgers for the price of one burger from Aspen. For not much more, we could top them off with a milkshake. We had discovered the Golden Arches.
I realize now that cheaper cost does not build a better burger, nor does the higher cost of patty cuisine offered on Aspen Mountain today. Something about the view, something about being a kid, made the Sundeck burgers matchless.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at email@example.com.
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Vaughn Shafer’s place of business in El Jebel is equal parts blacksmith shop, curio shop and man cave. He’s packing up 32 years of memories and accummulated stuff for a relocation.