The Best of Aspen: Food & drink
BEST BARWe’ve had a long-running joke that it’s amazing we put out a newspaper every day, being sandwiched between a liquor store and a bar. To make it even harder, the bar is named year after year as Aspen’s best – the J-Bar at the Hotel Jerome.Steeped in history, the J-Bar has been one of Aspen’s hottest spots since before the automobile. It’s located in one of the poshest hotels in town, but the bar seems to exist in its own world. People are friendly, the service is great and it’s just a homey place to gather with friends for a few cold ones (which sounds pretty good right now – time for a staff meeting!).Well behind the J-Bar came Eric’s, the second-place vote-getter last year. Though the atmosphere is a little more hip at Eric’s, you can always count on a lively crowd and lively bartenders serving up the drinks. And then there’s that one-night-stand thing (see “Out on the Town” section). That certainly can’t hurt a bar’s reputation.Our favorite answer: Just about every bar in town got at least one vote in this year’s contest. The Roaring Fork Tavern got exactly one vote, but would have won hands-down had the category been “Best Dive Bar.” It all depends, we guess, on how one defines “best.”BEST RESTAURANTAspen’s long been known for having some of the finest dining establishments on the planet. You can spend a fortune or just a few bucks, but you’ll always get a good meal. So it’s no surprise that close to 50 restaurants received votes in this category.It’s also no surprise that there was a three-way tie for second place between Montagna, Gusto and the Garden Terrace. But one restaurant was the runaway winner. For the third year in a row, Pions was voted the best restaurant in Aspen. The atmosphere, the food, wine list, the service; Pions has got it all. So if you really want to shoot the moon and treat that special someone right, reserve a table at this fine establishment.Our favorite answer: As we said, almost every restaurant in town got one vote. We were happy to see that Kentucky Fried Chicken got one vote. But then, upon venturing out for some finger-lickin’ good chicken, we saw that KFC has vacated its old spot at 435 E. Main St. Farewell to the Colonel.BEST INEXPENSIVE RESTAURANTWhile Aspen may be best-known for its pricier eating establishments, it’s still possible to get good grub at an affordable price. Really, we promise. The one restaurant that stands tall above the crowd in this category is the Big Wrap. Year after year, the place that serves all kinds of tortilla-wrapped international fare wraps up this category. And we have to agree. Every time the intercom crackles with “Big Wrap in the front office,” the sound of a half-dozen pairs of feet resounds through the rickety building.A newcomer, at least to this category, was second-place winner La Cocina, which finished a handful of votes behind the Wrap. We’ll also point out that this category received almost as many nominations as best restaurant. So get out there and eat; you can afford it.Our favorite answer: Several people gave us the standard “there is no inexpensive place to eat.” But our favorite this year was “home.” Now that’s inexpensive – and if you burn the steak you can’t send it back.BEST MEXICAN RESTAURANTWe have a penchant for margaritas here at The Aspen Times, and we make sure to down a couple every week. Invariably, the margaritas lead to the need for food, and we can personally testify that Aspen has great Mexican food (yes, we eat the food and not just the free chips).But according to readers, year after year, La Cocina is the best of the bunch. It always destroys the competition in this category. And what’s not to love about La Co, especially now that they accept credit cards. The place is a beehive of activity, and steaming plates of burritos and enchiladas put a smile on everyone’s face. Grab an outdoor table and it’s a piece of Mexican heaven.Well behind in the voting, but also with a strong showing, was another longtime local establishment, Su Casa. Down the stairs and across from Eric’s, Su Casa has hosted those of us at the Times through many a Happy Hour. Good people, good food.Our favorite answer: Nothing out of the ordinary here, but the Woody Creek Tavern got a vote in this category. Although they do serve up some mighty fine Mexican food, we thought their claim to fame was those hamburgers with the special beef – Cadillac beef? Buick? Limousine? Who cares; it’s pretty darned tasty.BEST ITALIAN RESTAURANTCan a town possibly have too many Italian restaurants? If so, then Aspen is surely in the running. But when they’re all top quality, it’s hard not to try them all.According to readers, they’re all top-notch, as competition was mighty stiff in this category. Last year’s winner, Campo de Fiori, made a strong run again this year, as did several others. However, we had a two-way tie for first between last year’s second-place winner, Gusto, and the venerable Mother Lode.Gusto, just a couple of years old, quickly established a reputation as one of the best places in town. Locals love the long lunch menu, the martinis and the hip atmosphere. The Mother Lode, which has filled many a belly next to the Wheeler Opera House, has been a favorite for a long time. With its cozy atmosphere and toasty fireplace, it’s the perfect place for a meal that tastes like it came from Mama’s kitchen.Another local favorite, L’Hostaria, barely beat Campo and Lucci’s for second place. Our favorite answer: Only one answer really stuck out from the crowd here – “my house.” Mama mia, next time include a name and phone number with your ballot. We’ll bring the blender and the appetite.BEST JAPANESE RESTAURANTThere were only a couple of nominations in this category, reflecting Aspen’s apparent preference for food from the boot-shaped country rather than the island in the Pacific. However, the winner received lots – and we mean lots – of votes … again. Year after year, Takah Sushi receives three times as many votes as second-place finisher Kenichi. The presentation is clean and so is the sushi. They also serve mean desserts. So if you like your food pretty, but uncooked, readers recommend Takah.BEST BREAKFASTAhh, breakfast, the best meal of the day. Especially when it comes at noon, after an eventful Friday night.Some prefer donuts and coffee, others like eggs Benedict and some go heavy with steak tartar. But it seems a heaping plate of eggs and hashed browns, that American tradition, remains the favorite around here. The Hickory House, also known for its barbecued ribs, edged out the Wienerstube by one vote, stealing the trophy from last year’s winner.Though different in style, both restaurants draw huge crowds every weekend. The rustic Hick House serves up pancakes well into the afternoon. As for the ‘Stube, you best get there early because there’s always a line. We recommend a mimosa and eggs Benedict to kick-start the day.BEST ON-MOUNTAIN RESTAURANTFor many people this category is irrelevant. When you’re on the mountain, you’re there for one reason only: to slide down the hill, over and over again. Food isn’t something to bother with … unless you find a year-old granola bar stuck in a jacket pocket.Others, however, build their entire day around lunch on the mountain. A few runs, a good lunch, a couple beers and the day is done. Just about every on-mountain restaurant got a vote this year, but each year the results are the same. Bonnie’s on Aspen Mountain takes top honors, followed closely by the Sundeck. For five years running, Bonnie’s has been the local snow-slider’s choice. At Snowmass, Gordon’s High Alpine took top honors. The Merry-Go-Round was the clear favorite at Highlands, and Bumps got a thumbs-up at Buttermilk.Our favorite answer: Most respondents stuck to restaurants, but one person answered, “my lunch box.” That’s certainly the cheapest lunch on the mountain, but how do you hold a lunch box while bumping down Steeplechase?BEST LUNCHAt The Aspen Times there are two kinds of lunch eaters. One group either brings their own or orders in and eats at their desk while slaving away on the next day’s edition. The other group spends half of the morning discussing options before heading out for a hearty (and lengthy) meal.Whichever way you swing, The Big Wrap can meet your needs. Another long-running champion, Aspen apparently doesn’t like to bother with the mess caused by lunchtime plates and silverware. Just wrap us up something good to eat and we’re happy as can be.In a distant second place was Boogie’s Diner, the funky family place with the clothing store downstairs.Our favorite answers: We had a couple of good ones in this category, including Aspen Valley Hospital. We’ve been out there, and it’s true. They serve a great lunch at a great price. Another favorite was “a picnic at the Grottos.” Sounds lovely. Our favorite, however, was “my wife’s choice for my lunch bucket.” Will she fill our lunch buckets, too?BEST BURGERThere are those who think a salad from the local supermarket constitutes lunch. Then there are those who understand the true meaning of lunch – the hamburger.According to our readers, the best burger in Aspen is sizzling on the grill right now over at Little Annie’s Eating House. Annie’s has long been an Aspen favorite, for burgers and more, but this choice needs little elaboration. Trailing just three votes behind was the J-Bar, where the huge burgers make a Big Mac look like an hors d’oeuvre.BEST PIZZAThis is one category we may have to eliminate next year because New York Pizza must be running out of wall space to hang all their winning plaques.Whether it’s a quick slab for lunch or a hearty slice of everything after the bars close, NYP is really the only pizza place in town, as far as readers are concerned. It received so many votes this year we almost ran out of space on our tally sheet.Way, way, back in second place was that little place out in Snowmass Village, Taster’s. Mezzaluna garnered a few votes, and Domino’s got two.BEST MARGARITAAs stated above, this is a category near and dear to our hearts. We don’t know what it is about that cool yellow drink with the salt on the rim, but it has always attracted Aspen Times employees like ants to a picnic … especially on a hot summer day.We’ve tried all the margaritas this town has to offer – and there are a lot – and we agree with our readers’ choice: La Cocina. Another perennial favorite in this contest, La Co is always noisy and packed. But that doesn’t keep them from turning out the frothiest, tastiest margaritas in town. Keep those pitchers coming.Well behind La Co was another one of our favorites, The Cantina. Sitting outside on the patio along Main Street, slurping margaritas and people-watching is a quintessential Aspen experience. Now that the Cantina is for sale, let’s urge the future owners to keep serving up those margaritas.BEST PLACE FOR A COLD BEERThis is a new category, and another one near and dear to our hearts. As Homer Simpson says, “Mmmm, beer. Woohoo!”It’s doubtful that many of us would survive in this frantic business without a cold frosty beer at day’s end. To make life even better, readers say the best place for a cold one is right next door at the J-Bar (didn’t the J-Bar already win Best Bar? Perhaps this category is redundant. Well, what the hell …).Far behind in second place is the Cooper Street Pier, another spot where locals have tipped ’em back for decades. With its well-scarred wooden floors and tables sticky from years of spilled pitchers, Cooper Street has “great beer joint” written all over it.Our favorite answers: We had a couple of good answers in this category, including the “free concerts at Fanny Hill.” One person suggested Munich, Germany. Can’t really argue with that one. But our favorite answer is, “my porch.” There’s just nothing better than kicking back in a lawn chair after a long day at work and poppin’ a cold one.
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