Pinons: 20 years old and brand new |

Pinons: 20 years old and brand new

Beth and Rob Mobilian have taken Pinons from a chaotic startup in the late 1980s to one of Aspen's most admired eating establishments. (Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times)

ASPEN ” Pinons restaurant chef and owner Rob Mobilian has one of those “things that might not have been” stories so common in Aspen.

Mobilian had cooked at the Hotel Jerome, Abetone restaurant and Gordon’s when he decided to give up on Aspen and return to Hawaii. He was a day or two from splitting town when he ran into a former colleague who encouraged him to check out a new place that was opening.

Mobilian took the advice 20 years ago in February. He persevered through the original chaos at Pinons and went on to become the owner with his wife, Beth. His first few days on the job weren’t the type that suggested big things to come. Pinons seemed ill-prepared to survive the tough competition of the Aspen restaurant scene.

“I walked in there on a Tuesday and we opened on a Thursday,” Mobilian recalled. The menu was determined but not perfected by any chef. No recipes had been established.

“We were making up dishes as the orders were coming,” said Mobilian. Lamb would be prepared one way for the initial order, then the cooks would decide to tweak the recipe for the next.

Several chefs were hired but nobody was named head chef. “I just sort of took charge,” Mobilian said.

Beth said the chemistry of the staff was a vital ingredient from the start. A core group from the opening months remained for years. The wait staff only recently started turning over.

“I think it was talent that helped it rise to the top,” Beth said.

Original owner Fred Mayerson sold Pinons to Paul Chanin after it had been open about five years. After another five years, Mobilian came in with Chanin as a partner. The Mobilians bought out Chanin in 2001.

Mobilian said the owners and partners always gave him flexibility to make decisions. It paid off. The restaurant earned consistently earns top marks, like from the Zagat Survey. Mobilian had no serious desire through the years to leave, especially after he bought into the establishment.

“You don’t leave the No. 1 place,” he said.

Beth came to Aspen in 1989 and gravitated toward restaurant management, helping to establish the posh Caribou Club. She handles Pinons’ in-house catering and much of the management.

“She does anything that involves the computer,” Rob said.

They credit the restaurant’s longevity to staying involved and maintaining a team. Pinons has a staff of about 50.

All parts of the staff ” waiters, chefs, etc. ” need to work well together or the customers’ experience suffers, Rob said. So he concentrates on keeping staff happy and motivated.

“If you’re able to pull that off, you’re successful,” he said. “If you keep your staff happy, you’ll keep your customers happy.”

Like Mobilian, two staff members have been with Pinons from the start: maître d’ Frank Chock and waiter Tim Young.

Rob said it would be difficult to start Pinons today. Housing costs and the price of entering business are prohibitive. They bought a home in Holland Hills outside of Basalt several years ago, but wonder how today’s young entrepreneurs will find housing. Pinons has remained throughout its 20 years in the same spot it rents at 105 S. Mill St.

Rob said ski bums don’t come to Aspen seeking work in the restaurant business any more, like he did 20-some years ago. Thirty-five of his 50 staff members are Latinos, who are now a vital part of Aspen’s work force.

Ski bums were satisfied with working the high season and finding other employment during offseasons. Now, a restaurant needs to provide income year-round for its core staff, even when it goes from serving 250 dinners to 50 per night.

But after 20 years, Rob’s learned to roll with the changes. Finding the proper balance between old and new is always a challenge. The Mobilians recently redecorated the restaurant, but kept some of the signature aspects of the design. Their motto this winter is, “Twenty years old and brand new.”

Rob also changes about 20 percent of the menu each year, mixing in new dishes to keep the restaurant fresh but retaining enough of the old to satisfy return customers.

Beth said Rob has never sat back in his 20 years at Pinons. He is not only the chef, but the plumber, electrician and drywaller ” out of necessity.

“He’s a true owner-operator,” she said. “He’s always looking to make it better.”

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