The Hickory House: Aspen regulars and ribs |

The Hickory House: Aspen regulars and ribs

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” Cooper Street Pier has closed again, possibly for good this time. The forthcoming Junk at the Red Onion is unlikely to resemble any of the past versions of the actual Red Onion. Name a great old-school-Aspen eating/drinking establishment (pick from any of the following: Shooter’s, the old Little Nell Bar, Shlomo’s, the Roaring Fork Tavern, La Cocina, the Tippler, or come up with your personal favorite) and chances are it’s been gone for years. Or decades. Change comes fast and hard in Aspen, and the most likely casualties are the affordable, the accessible, those that cater to the local population.

So it is easy to understand why there’s a strong sentiment for simply leaving things the way they are. One day last week, two upper valley residents were seated at a familiar, comfortable spot: the bar at the Hickory House, where they awaited the arrival of their lunch. Bayless Williams, a retired ski-lift operator, has been eating there since it opened as the Hickory House, around 1970; some years, he had his lunch there nearly every day. Gary Quist made the restaurant his very first stop when he arrived in Aspen, in 1997. Quist, a real estate broker and guitarist, has been a steady two-to-three meals-a-week diner ever since. Both had the same reason for making Hickory House a habit.

“It’s kind of like it’s always been,” said the white-bearded Bayless, who had been listening in on my conversation with Quist. “It’s one of the few places that hasn’t changed. I can go to another restaurant in town and not know a soul; I can come in here and know a quarter of the people, and recognize a bunch more. You feel like you’re at home.”

“It’s always been good,” said Quist. “Consistent is the key word.”

Williams and Quist are likely being guided by a sense of nostalgia in seeing the Hickory House as the same old place, decade-in, decade-out. That assessment is off. The Hickory House has, in fact, gotten better over the years ” more distinctive, higher quality food, a cleaner space, more business ” while holding on to the aspects that the regulars appreciate: affordable prices, blue-collar crowd, friendly service.

Among those who say the food has improved over the years ” “Totally improved!” is how he puts it ” is Kurt Hackbarth. Hackbarth is not only a Hickory House regular, but a former operator of the restaurant. In 1995, he was hired by the then-new owners of the Hickory House, the Luu brothers, after one of the brothers died in a car crash. Hackbarth knew wrenches ” he had been a manager and technician in the Aspen Skiing Company’s lift maintenance department for 19 years ” and he had a warm personality. He even knew how to cook. But he had little idea how to put those skills to use in a restaurant.

“I was never in a place where I was cooking for other people. It was a total 360 for me,” he said, noting that, under his management, the Hickory House served “the standards”: hash browns and eggs for breakfast, burgers and steaks for lunch, and no dinner.

Still, Hackbarth considered his short tenure a success. Under the previous owners, Bill and Phyllis Stone, the place ” which had earlier been the original location of Guido Meyer’s Guido’s Swiss Inn; then the Silver Chicken, its first incarnation as a barbecue spot ” had become established as a dependable, down-home spot for the working class. (The notion that the building’s original use was as a railroad station is, apparently, untrue. The plethora of train artifacts found in various corners by a succession of owners can be traced to Bill Stone’s fascination with railroads.) But after Bill died, in 1988, it gradually slid downhill.

“It was pretty run-down,” said Hackbarth. “When Billy passed away, Phyllis got so burned out on it, she just let it go. It was scaring people away.”

Under Hackbarth and the Luu Brothers, the kitchen was cleaned, the dining room got new carpeting, and the waitstaff got a makeover. The atmosphere was so upbeat in that era that Hackbarth boasts of zero turnover among his waiters. But he makes no similar claims about the food.

Paul Dioguardi, on the other hand, is all about the food. Dioguardi, who celebrated his 10th anniversary as owner of the Hickory House in September, came into the restaurant with barbecue sauce practically dripping from his fingers. As a teenager in suburban Chicago, Dioguardi worked for Rusty Findlay, who owned Brother’s Ribs in Lake Zurich, Ill. More fun, more educational, and more of a factor in developing Dioguardi’s lifelong infatuation was his summer work: gathering a bunch of buddies and hitting the North American barbecue competition circuit.

“It was eight or 10 of my best friends,” the 35-year-old Dioguardi recalled. “We’d cook the ribs in Illinois, drive a big refrigerated truck with our signs, pulling barbecue grills. The competitions were Thursday, Friday, Saturday, then we’d pack up and go to another state, or back to Illinois and pack up some more ribs and head out again.”

Dioguardi spent eight summers, from the ages of 15 to 22, transporting ribs as far as Ontario in the north and Florida to the south, racking up more than a dozen competitions each summer. But he saw himself as more than a hired hand, hauling someone else’s creations around the country. Rubbing elbows with fellow barbecue chefs across the country, Dioguardi picked up tips on the regional styles. He experimented with his own recipes for ribs, sauce, cole slaw and beans, borrowing bits and pieces of Carolina, Memphis, Kansas City and Texas techniques.

Warned away from the restaurant business by his parents, Dioguardi spent several years away from the smoker. At the University of Illinois, he took a pre-dental course. After college, he moved to Denver, to take a 9-to-5 office job in a friend’s cable-manufacturing and -distribution business. But he couldn’t get the taste of barbecue off his mind, and the sensation was only heightened when his old boss, Findlay, bought Aspen’s Hickory House from the Luu brothers.

“Even before a year, I was looking to open up a Hickory House in Denver,” said Dioguardi. “I had a lot of trouble. I was 23, 24, couldn’t get a loan. People wouldn’t take me seriously.”

Findlay, however, knew what he was capable of, and entrusted the Hickory House to his former employee. Dioguardi bought the business in September of 1998, and his guiding philosophy seemed to be to respect tradition as much as possible. He kept the name, the menu, the recipes. For the first seven years he owned the restaurant, he kept the prices exactly the same.

About six years ago, Dioguardi became comfortable enough to begin putting his own stamp on the Hickory House. He removed the carpets and brought in new furnishings. He found a new source for his ribs, which now come from tulip-fed pigs raised in Denmark and Finland (see sidebar for more on the ribs). Dioguardi even engaged in some empire-building: he opened a second Hickory House south of Denver in Parker; bought a USDA plant in Castle Rock, where he packages his own brand of ribs to sell in grocery stores from Florida to Seattle; and partnered with Michelbob’s, a former foe on the competition circuit that has two locations in southwest Florida.

Anyone who was worried that the Hickory House would follow Aspen’s inevitable upscale drift must have been comforted when Dioguardi reopened the doors after a three-month redesign. The signature bear was still over the entrance; the drinks still came in oversized plastic souvenir cups. The menu was still pulled pork sandwiches, smoked sausage, barbecue chicken and the customary sides. The prices were untouched. (Dioguardi finally raised the prices ” twice! ” in the last three years, but a lunch of pork sandwich with potato and slaw is still under $9, and the dinnertime Feast provides a taste of everything you can put barbecue sauce on, plus all the sides, for about $12 a person.) Dioguardi didn’t alienate his core crowd, and may have even pulled in new diners: Every year since the remodel, he says, revenues have increased.

While Hickory House’s food has gotten an upgrade, its atmosphere remains steadfastly blue-collar. The clientele is still construction workers in overalls, Latinos, old-timers at the community table, downscale diners of all sorts. And overwhelmingly male. (A habit of mine is to tally the gender ratio in the room. On three recent trips, it was 41-4, 34-5, and most recently at lunch, an amazing 46-2 through the restaurant’s two dining rooms. The Hickory House may be many things; a pick-up joint it is not.) It is fitting that the Hickory House is located 10 blocks from Aspen’s downtown dining scene; it is a world apart from the exclusive Aspen of real estate ads and magazine spreads. At least during lunch, an outfit of clean jeans and a shirt with buttons is approaching overdressed.

The working-class vibe extends to the other side of the counter. Dioguardi, who lives in Willits, says he is in the restaurant 95 percent of the time, as long as he isn’t troubleshooting at his Parker restaurant.

“I don’t think I could sleep at night if I was charging $30 for a rack of ribs,” he said. “I could probably charge more than I do, and still be the cheapest place in town. But I don’t want to. That’s why I like coming to work ” the locals come here.”

Still, in terms of being welcoming to the customers, Dioguardi takes a back seat to one of his staff. When I sat down to lunch last week, Jose Magana came to my table with his usual welcoming manner and, though we’d never exchanged more than greetings before, he shook my hand before asking if I wanted lemonade.

Magana, a 49-year-old Salvadoran has lived in Colorado for nine years, has worked in restaurants before. At the Snowmass Club, where he served tables, he was named employee of the month twice; he has also put in time at McDonald’s, and at the St. Regis hotel, where he lasted one month bussing tables. But he found that restaurant work didn’t suit him; the smell of the food, for one thing, was a turn-off. But the Hickory House clientele and cuisine have warmed him to the job of waiting tables.

“I could have stayed at the Snowmass Club. But those are fancy people, they are different people. You might make the money, but you don’t feel comfortable. You wake up in the morning and think you don’t want to go,” said Magana, who has worked at the Hickory House ” serving breakfast and lunch, six days a week ” for four years. “Here, I love it. I love dealing with people. The people are amazing. I wish the next morning would come so I can go to work.”

At no time is that spirit more evident than on Thanksgiving Day. Each Thanksgiving, the Hickory House opens its doors to all, for free (though a donation is requested, with collections split this year between the Aspen Buddy Program and St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital). Tong Luu, one of the Hickory House’s landlords, donates the turkeys ” 60 birds, 20 pounds each. Dioguardi and his staff smoke them and add the trimmings. The result is a tradition that dates back to the Bill and Phyllis Stone age ” but even at that, Dioguardi thinks Thanksgiving at the Hickory House is an underutilized institution.

“People get confused; they don’t know what it’s for,” he said. “It’s for whoever wants to show up ” for people stopping in for a snack, people who want to volunteer. It’s for everyone. I want to be packed from the time we open till the time we close. That last five years, I’ve actually had leftover food. That kind of sucks. To not have everyone at least stop in, say hi, try some smoked turkey ” that’s a waste. I want to see everyone.”

Thanksgiving at the Hickory House ” and the Tuesday and Thursday full-rack lunch special ” don’t seem to be going the way of Cooper Street pitchers, La Cocina enchiladas and disco night at the Tippler. Tong Luu says he will not sell the building, not even to Dioguardi. Luu wants to make absolutely certain that the Hickory House stays just as it’s been: casual, comfortable, inexpensive.

When he and his brothers bought the Hickory House, Luu recalls, “Local people were nervous. They look at me: I’m Asian; they worry I’m going to change it. Now, I walk in, a lot of locals shake my hand, say thank you.

“The way it looks, the way it is, I want to keep it like that. No matter who’s running it, I want it to stay the Hickory House.”

He’s not the only one. Bayless Williams, who has been a fixture at the counter for nearly four decades, says the end of the Hickory House would not be a quiet one.

“There’d be demonstrations around town,” he said. “There’d be people with flags out there, protesting.”

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