Wait is over for Aspen restaurants: Reopening is welcome change among owners, diners

Warwick Ford, center left, and Nola Ford share a lunch in the outdoor seating at Red Onion in downtown Aspen on Tuesday, May 26, 2020. “It’s wonderful, it’s our first day back at Red Onion,” said Nola. “We’re locals and we love it!” (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

A new day — with a lot of new rules — greeted Aspen’s dining scene Wednesday.

This is what it looked like during the noon lunch hour: Hostesses and hosts greeting customers. Servers asking diners what they’d like for lunch. People eating, together, both outside and inside of Aspen restaurants.

It was business as usual, except that it wasn’t.

City officials wearing face coverings checked in on the eateries — were their tables at least 6 feet apart or were they operating at the 50% capacity rule? Were outdoor dining groups separated by at least 6 feet? Were servers, cooks and other restaurant staff wearing face coverings? Were those patrons not seated wearing masks?

“We’re telling everyone the official word is 6 feet, not 8 feet (between tables), that every other table doesn’t have chairs,” said Mitch Osur, the city’s director of downtown services and parking, in between business visits on the 300 block of East Hopkins Avenue, a stretch so densely populated with eating and drinking venues that it’s called Restaurant Row.

Osur was with City Clerk Nicole Henning, the two monitoring the restaurants on the first day eating out was legal in Pitkin County ever since Gov. Jared Polis issued a statewide public health order that took effect March 17. The order limited eating establishments to takeout service, which could go only so far for an Aspen restaurant community whose oxygen is dine-in customers.

On Saturday, however, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment agreed to Pitkin County’s request for a variance to the state’s public health order, effectively allowing in-person dining as part of the county’s Phase 2 implementation of its “Roadmap to Reopening.”

“It’s nice seeing familiar faces, for sure,” Red Onion server Jordan White said. “It’s really fun to see people coming out again and not being afraid to walk around. People definitely want to sit outside more than inside right now. So we’ll keep doing what we’re doing and as long as we’re allowed to be open, we’re glad to be open.”

One table of four Red Onion regulars seized the al-fresco moment — it was a breezy 70 degrees and sunny outside in the Cooper Avenue mall. Their visit was fueled by some pent-up demand for one of their favorite Aspen haunts.

“We’re here,” one of them declared. “First day back. We missed it.”

“It feels nice to be out,” another said.

They were not wearing masks but the law doesn’t require them to; patrons only must wear face coverings when not seated at their table.

That was one normal aspect for diners — not having to wear face coverings — and restaurateur Craig Cordts-Pearce said his team’s goal is to make nothing seem out of the ordinary when it comes to the dining experience.

“You’re going to see absolute positivity from our staff. We don’t want to talk about the virus,” said Cordts-Pearce, who with his wife, Samantha, own Steakhouse No. 316, The Wild Fig, The Monarch and CP Burgers. “We want to know where you hiked today, where did you do a bike ride? We are going to be as normal as we can. And that is going to be important to everybody.”

While Cordts-Pearce was eager for the evening dinner patrons to arrive, it was a mellow scene during the noon hour at Meat & Cheese, a place where waiting lines are common that time of the day.

“It’s really quiet,” said Wendy Mitchell, owner of Meat & Cheese. “We just opened and we’ve had three tables so far, a couple of takeout orders. We’ve been racing around like crazy people trying to get all of the stickers (boundary markers for social distancing) on the floor, and make sure everyone’s up to date.”

The restaurant is operating on a reduced menu before it rolls out its full-time July offerings. Its vegan-friendly meal Wednesday night was a sweet potato risotto with charred local squash and charred green onion. (That Wednesday evening crowd was disrupted for a bit by a passing downpour and high winds, but business carried on.)

“So many people are telling me that they can’t wait to eat in a restaurant,” Mitchell said of the public mood over dining out. “I’d say it’s about 80-20. About 20% are really nervous and uncomfortable.”

For one restaurant, it made better business sense to ditch its dine-in tables so it can hold more people inside. The management at New York Pizza, where customers order their meals over the counter, removed the tables because the restaurant can accommodate more customers following the 6-foot social distancing rule. Like Meat & Cheese, CP Burgers and Red Onion, NYP stayed open for takeout under previous health rules, its pandemic special was a large pizza with a salad and six-pack of beer for $35.

“This is our first day having the doors open, and we’re doing take-out and standing-room only,” co-owner Earl Rodgers explained as he and another worker were setting up social-distance markers in the stairway to the pizza shop. “We’re not having any dine-in seating, so we can keep our occupancy at the right level.”

Like other restaurants at lunchtime, White House Tavern had more customers dining outside than inside.

“We’re excited to be here for the community and provide everyone a safe and comfortable experience,” White House general manager Avery Colgan said.

The customers’ comfort must come from the staff who serve them, Craig Cordts-Pearce said.

“We are there to make our guests safe, but first and foremost, we are taking care of our employees,” he said. “(Employees) are taking comfort knowing that we are following all of the protocols to keep them safe in our group. And when that happens inside our restaurant group, it’s just going to flow to the customers. When we feel safe inside, the customer is going to feel safe.”

The Cordts-Pearce couple’s CP Restaurant Group held an employee gathering a few days ago. Cordts-Pearce said he wasn’t sure what to expect or who would show up. He was pleased with the outcome.

“The thing that really put us on a high, we had the staff from the 316, the Wild Fig and the Monarch all come in a couple of days ago just to sort of regroup, set up the restaurants, and also for them to get the idea of this is what social distancing looks like — in the restaurant. The coolest thing was that everybody showed up and every one of our staff showed up. It was a like a family reunion,” he said. “Everyone showed up, everyone was smiling, everyone was positive. Everyone was wearing masks, everyone was being respectful. It feels like we’re halfway there, we’ve been dealing with this mask thing for so long.”

The point of the story, Cordts-Pearce said, is that it shows that members of Aspen’s service industry are in the same boat and ready to get back to work. The restaurant community also is anxiously awaiting what Aspen City Council will do Monday with the results of the city’s online survey regarding a “Recovery Street Plan” that would close certain downtown streets to vehicles and open them to business commerce and outdoor dining.

“You cannot make ends meet at 50% (capacity); you just cannot,” Cordts-Pearce said, before commending the city for the work it has done with restaurants.

Aspen City Council’s five members are acting as liaisons between business segments and the government. Mayor Torre is working with restaurants, transportation and food services to better understand their concerns and needs during the pandemic.

“We’ve been working the city, and the city has actually been incredible,” Cordts-Pearce said. “Torre took on the restaurant side of it, and I call him at the weirdest hours and he picks the phone up, and he’s been pretty integral to this and he’s listening. And it’s great because it’s the first time all of us have actually gotten together and we have created this little coalition, and we’re talking and it’s incredible.

“It’s like we’re a team. So not only are we a team inside our restaurants, now we’re a team in the town and it’s really cool feeling, actually. It’s really nice.”

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