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Tequila & Tango

Jennifer DavorenAspen Times Staff Writer

Don’t be fooled by the restaurant slogan. It might claim Jimmy’s is “An American Restaurant & Bar,” but owner Jimmy Yeager takes great pride in promoting the entire Western Hemisphere.”It’s more like a restaurant of the Americas,” Yeager tells visitors to his Aspen establishment, perched on the top floor of the Mill Street Plaza building.Diners and drinkers can probably spot samples of each America – North, South and Central – in every corner of the steak, chop and seafood house. The menu boasts flavors from each of the three continents, with a heavy emphasis on Rocky Mountain favorites. A perusal of the wine racks or a glimpse behind the bar reveals both international and domestic spirits, including Yeager’s acclaimed tequila collection.This cross-cultural theme has even affected the restaurant walls. Jimmy’s Saturday special, Latin Dance Night, has inspired a sweeping mural that overlooks the entire dining room.It’s tough to talk about Jimmy’s without mentioning tequila and tango. These days, it seems the name “Jimmy” has become synonymous with “Aspen nightlife.”Off-season? What off-season?Yeager grew up in New Jersey, with full access to his parents’ pantry. The Yeagers nurtured little Jimmy’s fondness for food, and as he grew they often invited him to cater family functions.”I started getting paid to do my parents’ dinner parties, parents’ friends’ dinner parties,” Yeager recalled.But Yeager’s “real education” came in the late ’70s, when he moved to New York and found work both in the kitchen and behind the bar. He quickly learned the ins and outs of the restaurant business – in particular, where the quick cash was made.”My first love was cooking, but it was great to work in the front of the house and make money,” he laughed.Yeager eventually left for college in Syracuse. He skipped both business and cooking classes, and instead studied finance, accounting and psychology.He eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he found work with an investment company. This break from the restaurant business allowed him to take a few skiing lessons during frequent vacations to California resorts. And the downhill pastime eventually led him to Aspen, where he discovered “the greatest, biggest little town in the country.”His short trips to Colorado became a permanent vacation in 1991.”My love for feeding people superseded my love of taking care of people’s finances,” Yeager said.Yeager started out like every other young Aspen transplant – he flipped burgers at the Sundeck by day and waited tables at night. However, he quickly worked his way up Aspen’s, uh, food chain. After just one year in town, he was promoted to dining room manager at the Caribou Club and, by the following fall, he had become general manager of the private club.In the spring of 1995, Yeager turned 35 years old – and decided to make a major turn in his career. He spent two years as a private chef, testing his recipes on a choosy clientele.Then, he recalled, gazing around his restaurant, “This magical little space opened up.”Jimmy’s opened in June 1997. Its Mill Street Plaza location is enviable, complete with sweeping patio views of Red Mountain.Like all Aspen businesses, Jimmy’s struggled during its first few weeks. But Yeager bucked a few trends set by his management peers, including abbreviated off-season hours.”In the off-season, we’re open ’til 11 p.m. On season, until 11:30,” Yeager said. “If you close early, you still lose money.”But hours of operation are flexible at Jimmy’s. Show up at 11:45 p.m. on a Thursday night and you won’t go hungry, Yeager says. Even if it’s too late to grill a steak, the kitchen staff could probably whip up a quick entree before closing time. “We’re in the feeding-people business, not the watch business,” Yeager says. There’s never really an off-season at Jimmy’s. The restaurant is open 363 days a year, closing only for Labor Day (of course) and New Year’s Day (“I can’t think of a better way to start a new year,” Yeager says). They’ll occasionally close to the public for catered events – Jimmy’s hosts a number of special functions – but the crew still works.Staying open and available to locals in the shoulder season helped Jimmy’s build a strong clientele, Yeager said – a unique accomplishment, considering Aspen’s revolving restaurant syndrome. “I feel like I’m part of the community,” Yeager said. “Off-season is a great time. You can really make relationships with the locals stronger.”Surf, turf and tequilaYeager is a hands-on guy, involved in just about every aspect of his business.”Everybody works here. I’m the best bus boy in town,” Yeager laughs.The restaurateur clocked upward of 100 hours a week during the first two years of managing Jimmy’s. He eventually turned to an administrative assistant, Grayson Stover, for help.Stover boosted business by 40 percent in her first year at Jimmy’s. Yeager was so impressed that he made her a partner.These days, Yeager’s schedule includes a mere 70 to 80 hours a week spent at the restaurant. He’s there from five to seven nights a week, either behind the bar or lending a hand in the kitchen.Yeager doesn’t consider himself a Jimmy’s chef, though he did create most of the recipes used at the restaurant. Instead, he relies on current chef Carlos Salcedo to fill out the menu.Yeager considers his restaurant a “steak, chop and seafood house,” but with considerable wiggle room. Jimmy’s most popular items, of course, are in the surf-and-turf category, but he also provides lighter and sweeter salads and desserts (there’s also the “ridiculously, reasonably priced bar menu” for cheap eats).Yeager may have a hand in the menu, but his tastes are perhaps most evident on the spirits list.Come for a cocktail, but be warned – Yeager wants to tempt your taste buds with a bolder flavor. Hands down, he’s the city’s most prominent tequila aficionado, and he hopes to turn each bar customer into one as well.”My passion for tequila started in 1983, when I was running a bar in Southern California,” Yeager said. “Three premium tequilas were introduced to the country in 1983, and I started following the market.”Yeager became a bit more involved than that – he’s seen the tequila-making process firsthand. He’s even traveled to Mexico to chop magueys – an agave plant popular among tequila connoisseurs – with the Zapatec Indians.Jimmy’s carries over 70 types of tequila. Yeager’s enthusiasm for the spirit is contagious, perhaps because of his policy of introducing the uninitiated. “It’s one ounce education, two ounces of fun, and three ounces of consumption,” he said.But, “as important as it is showing them what to drink, it’s just as important to show them how to drink,” Yeager says. Tequila Rule No. 1: Forget your college drinking habits. Take the time to taste the aromatics and flavor of the drink.”Sip it, don’t shoot it,” a stern Yeager warns. Yeager totes his tequila to Aspen’s Food & Wine Magazine Classic each year. He and the Jimmy’s bartending staff – a distinctive job on Aspen’s night scene – host exhibitions and demonstrations with industry leaders, enticing a new generation of tequila aficionados.It’s no wonder Jimmy’s is known for catering to the “adult” bar crowd.”The last thing about bartending is pouring drinks,” Yeager said. “It’s about creating a spectrum of entertainment. The bar business is a people business, 100 percent.”`Jimmy culture’It started as a simple hobby, but bloomed into a business.Yeager became interested in the different styles of Latin dance a few years ago, and began taking lessons locally and abroad. He met a number of beginning and advanced dance students in tango and salsa classes and invited them back to the restaurant one Saturday night for a demonstration.”We just pushed a few tables aside and danced,” Yeager said.Both dancers and diners enjoyed the evening, leading Yeager to invite more friends the following Saturday. The group eventually started advertising in local newspapers, and the numbers swelled.Nowadays between 50 and 100 people crowd Jimmy’s each Saturday for the designated “Latin Dance Night.” It’s created a positive cross-cultural effect, Yeager said, allowing Aspen’s various ages and races to mix. Expanding on the formula, Yeager recently founded Tango Aspen, a society that promotes the graceful dance and offer lessons to beginners. Yeager’s girlfriend and dance partner, tango teacher Heather Morrow, whom he met in Buenos Aires during a dance lesson, has also been a big help. The couple now have a son, Luca.A few of Aspen’s clubs and restaurants have tried to duplicate Jimmy’s dance night, Yeager said, but few have the same flavor.”When things are done for the right reasons, they work,” he said.Tango and tequila mix to create a unique atmosphere, what Yeager calls “Jimmy culture.”Anyone lucky enough to bear the name “Jimmy” is allowed to sign the restaurant’s “Jimmy wall,” an archway plastered in autographs from a host of Jimmys. Failing that, various actresses, sports figures, celebrated chefs and the like have been offered spots on the restaurant’s “industry wall.” But Jimmy jealousy still runs rampant. Scrawled one chef: “In my next life, I’m coming back as a Jimmy!”Memorabilia is also key to Jimmy culture. Bar manager Bryan Sax even lent his downhill ski suit – the same one the former U.S. Ski Team member wore during a recent 24 Hours of Aspen race – to the restaurant for exhibition.Little touches let customers known they’ll be catered to, but they can still have a good time, Yeager said.”We take our little world very seriously, but at the same time, this is the entertainment business,” he said.Jennifer Davoren’s e-mail address is jenniferd@aspentimes.com


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