Oyster bar opening in Aspen works on deed-restricted menu in old Little Annie’s

Carolyn Sackariason
The Aspen Times
The new owner of Little Annie's restaurant is renovating the building for its next iteration — Clark's Oyster Bar. The Austin-based restaurant group is planning for a June 1 opening.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times |

When a new oyster bar opens this spring in the historic Little Annie’s space on Hyman Avenue, the owner will be required to operate it as a “low-priced restaurant.”

What that means exactly is open for interpretation, but according to a November 2015 deed restriction placed on the property by the city of Aspen, it is fairly restrictive. It says, “Low-priced restaurant means a restaurant offering menu items priced not more expensively, on a relative basis, when compared to other sit-down restaurants in Aspen, Colorado, than the current menu prices. Current menu prices are deemed those prices in the menu in effect at the Little Annie’s Restaurant on September 23, 2015.”

The deed restriction is a result of a deal struck between Aspen City Council and the former owners of the building, local attorney Andy Hecht and his son, Nikos. The Hechts announced in 2011 that they planned to tear down the Hyman Avenue structure. Panic set in throughout the community — and at the council table — that one of Aspen’s oldest bars and restaurants could forever be gone. Aspen City Council gave the Hechts millions of dollars’ worth of breaks on the multi-use building next door in exchange for requiring that the restaurant forever be moderately priced.

This isn’t the first time the city has attempted to have control over a menu in the name of affordability. Justice Snow’s, located in the city-owned Wheeler Opera House, was given a mandate to be locally serving. But there wasn’t enough teeth in the lease to hold the proprietor to that, and the result was only one real affordable item on the menu: what is now a $12 burger.

“We really want to comply, and we also need to give ourselves a chance to be successful.”— Larry McGuire, co-founder of Clark’s Oyster Bar

The Little Annie’s restriction goes further: “It shall be presumed that the restaurant is not being operated as a low-priced restaurant unless the regular dinner menu submitted to customers on a daily basis contains four entree items of reasonable choices and proportions, including at least one poultry dish and one fish or hamburger dish, whose average price of the four items is not greater than $19 and the regular lunch menu submitted to customers on a daily basis contains four main items of reasonable choices and proportions, including a hamburger meal, whose average price of the four items is not greater than $14.”

City Attorney Jim True said earlier this month that crafting language that holds restaurateurs accountable is challenging, but council’s intent is for the establishment to serve the local population.

“We try to learn every time,” True said about crafting new restrictions. “There was long discussion at the council about the prices on menus and the concept of locally serving.”

Larry McGuire, co-founder of the Texas-based Clark’s Oyster Bar, who with his partners bought the Little Annie’s space last year for $2 million, said he plans to adhere to the spirit of the deed restriction.

“The deed restriction is kind of difficult to interpret,” he said. “We really want to comply, and we also need to give ourselves a chance to be successful.”

McGuire said he plans to use his menu from his Austin, Texas location — with variations — including bringing back Little Annie’s famous shot and a beer special and daily happy hour prices. But like the old Annie’s menu, there will be some pricey items as well.

“There isn’t anything in the deed restriction that says we can’t charge $30 for a piece of fish,” McGuire said.

He will go before the council in the coming months to drill down the menu options before opening, which he is planning for June 1.

With more than $2.5 million into the renovation, McGuire said he and his partners plan to be here for the long haul. They are transforming the space so it feels like a New England or Seattle seaside cabin. It will have a new fireplace, a skylight and the original bar that’s being refurbished. The place will seat about 90 people.