The end of an era – La Co to close
August 16, 2005
La Cocina – an Aspen dining institution – is poised to close its doors for the last time next month.Owners Nick and Sarah Lebby, who have run the popular restaurant for more than three decades, have reached a deal to sell the Hopkins Avenue property for an undisclosed sum to a group of investors headed by Syzygy owner Walt Harris, Nick Lebby confirmed Tuesday.While the transaction won’t be a done deal until late September, the Lebbys say they’re confident the sale will close.La Co, as it’s affectionately known, is the place where regulars order their favorites by the number off the familiar menu – the No. 2 is two chicken enchiladas – and garlic bread is the standard accompaniment to its Mexican fare. “We like to clean up our plates, and tortillas just don’t cut it,” Nick explained.
The Lebbys opened La Co in 1972, leasing a tiny building that once housed The House of Lum, a tiny Chinese eatery, followed by a long-forgotten establishment that briefly occupied the space.La Cocina expanded over the years but retained the friendly touch that earned its reputation as a locals’ place. Nick greets regulars by name, and it’s not unusual for the house to buy a round of margaritas or a dessert for the table. Sarah has long been responsible for the homemade hot fudge and caramel sauce for the restaurant’s sundaes, not to mention the chocolate velvet, another heavenly La Co dessert option.As word spreads of the restaurant’s anticipated closure, she has been pestered for the recipes for both the chocolate velvet and her ever-popular mango spacho soup.Nothing in particular is driving the decision to sell the property at this point other than that it feels like as good a time as any, according to the Lebbys, whose daughters, Erin and Nicole, have also been involved in the restaurant’s operation. They also have a son, Josh.”I really love what I do,” Nick said over coffee at a table beside La Co’s front windows Tuesday morning. “It’s fun for me. I’m definitely going to miss all the people I got to meet and become friends with and get acquainted with. It’s a very rewarding experience – it was for me.”
The Lebbys have watched La Co loyalists come with their children, who then grow up and tow in children of their own. Generations of local youths have worked in the restaurant, Nick added.The Lebbys came to Aspen to ski but took a chance in the restaurant business when they leased the space in the early ’70s. They made a wise decision in purchasing the property a few years after La Cocina opened. That the restaurant wasn’t subject to the whims of a landlord for the past 33 years is likely a key to its longevity.The arrangement also allowed the Lebbys to close each spring and fall and head for Hawaii. The restaurant never closes or reopens on the same date – it operates on a schedule that works for the family. As always, its closing date next month is still up in the air.Harris’ future plans for the restaurant property have not been made public. He recently declined to comment before the deal is finalized, but Nick said he’s confident what comes next at the site will be good for Aspen.
“He [Harris] has been in the restaurant business for 20 years. We were very happy to work with someone who shows the longevity and commitment,” Nick said. “After talking with him, we’re very happy that he’s the one doing it. I think he can take it to the next level.”The sale of La Cocina, the business, however, is not part of the deal, according to Lebby. And La Cocina, the building, could well disappear. The city’s Historic Preservation Commission agreed several years ago that the restaurant building had seen too many exterior alterations to merit a historic designation, so it was lifted from the property. That means no part of the building has to be preserved in any redevelopment plan.Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is email@example.com