‘Where Do I Eat Now?’: A new look for Aspen’s menu of restaurants

Shift in restaurant ownership changing landscape of local eateries

Rick Carroll
Aspen Times Weekly
Jimmy Yeager speaks to locals on the balcony of Jimmy’s on the final Food and Wine weekend for the restaurant on Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

But where do I eat now?

People asked that question when the Steak Pit closed in 2010, when Little Annie’s did in 2016, then the Red Onion in 2020 and Jimmy’s an American Restaurant & Grill in September. Aspen resident Ruth Harrison, writing to local newspapers, concluded her letter about L’Hostaria Ristorante’s closing last week with the same line, “but where do I eat now?

Aspen’s menu of restaurants hasn’t just been tinkered with since the pandemic broke in late March 2020. Remade is more like it, the seismic shift evident through the arrival of out-of-town restaurant owner/investors and the continued loss of locally owned and popular standbys, with affordable options becoming an increasingly endangered species.

“The whole town is changing, and it gets harder and harder to survive,” said Mark Tye, who worked 35 years in Aspen’s service industry. These days he’s an observer. “Corporate ownership is a totally different mentality than local ownership.”

Aspen still has plenty of locally run restaurants, and Tye worked at one of them — Mezzaluna. But be it Boogie’s Diner, Wienerstube‚ La Cocina, Cooper Street Pier, Pinions, The Chart House, Rustique, Shlomo’s or Main Street Bakery — and many others that have closed since 2000 — all were locally owned, and guests had a good chance of being personally greeted by the owner, with some of those initial handshakes blossoming into friendships (and repeat visits).

There have been exits among chain locations, too, over recent years. Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, popular in metropolitan cities, was a bust and closed in 2009. Casa Tua operates there now. McDonald’s shuttered in 2016 and was replaced by a yoga studio. Domino’s left around the time the pandemic hit in 2020.

The wrecking ball came for buildings that had housed popular restaurants: The Boogie’s building was remodeled; Wienerstube’s old Hyman Avenue address is now retail and office space; La Cocina’s spot was razed and replaced with new restaurant space on the 300 block of East Hopkins Avenue, also known as “Restaurant Row”; the Dancing Bear complex occupies the former Chart House space; and Main Street Bakery is an unfinished project that developer Mark Hunt has said he wants occupied by a diner.

Other than the old Main Street Bakery location, there just aren’t any restaurant spaces available in Aspen, unless current restaurant tenants will sub-let their space to a new restaurant, and maybe sell their business as well.

Tatanka Western Bistro closed earlier this year, making way for another restaurant that will open in its place this winter. (Rick Carroll/Aspen Times Weekly)

“The only way to get in now is to buy someone out,” said Karen Setterfield, who brokers commercial space downtown. “There’s no space waiting there.”

Liquor license applications offer insight into what kind of money it takes to get a restaurant going in Aspen.

Eli Hospitality, which is taking over Tatanka Western Bistro spot, is investing $2.9 million into what will be called Eli Eats, according its liquor-license paperwork on file at the Aspen city clerk’s office.

Eli Eats’ future spot at 308 E. Hopkins Ave. — La Cocina’s old address — is owned by a Nevada company. Tatanka didn’t last long at the space; it opened in the summer of 2019 and had closed by the end of last ski season. Eli Hospitality also is taking over a lease, which is set to expire in July 2028, that commands an annual base rent of $227,885 through its first five years and $247,724 for the next five years.

Couple David and Jennifer Millstone, who own a home in Aspen, are 50-50 owners of New York-based Eli Hospitality, which also is opening a restaurant in the Hyman Avenue space that L’Hostaria just left. Raphael Derly, former co-owner of French Alpine Bistro-Crêperie du Village in Aspen, also will be running the new eatery on Hyman.

L'Hostaria Ristorante proprietor Tiziano Gortan, center, shares a laugh with a table of locals on the night before closing day of the local establishment in downtown Aspen on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Elsewhere, the owners of Casa D’Angelo, which currently operates from the Pinions spot upstairs at 105 S. Mill, cited a $2 million investment into their Aspen restaurant, according to liquor license records.

Owner/operator 50 Eggs Hospitality, which has restaurants in Las Vegas and Miami, is investing $3 million to open a Chica location inside the Residences at The Little Nell.

A sign in front of Catch Steak’s new Aspen location teases at what’s to come. (Rick Carroll/Aspen Times Weekly)

The company signed a lease with a base annual rent of $240,000 the first year, $300,000 the second year, and $420,000 the third. On the fourth and remaining years, base rent will increase by 3% per annum, according to lease terms that are part of its liquor license application. The restaurant is slated to open this winter.

Catch Steak, which is moving into the former Scarlett’s space on the second-floor of 204 S. Galena St., has a 10-year lease with options for its near 17,000-square-foot space. Annual base rent begins at $500,000 the first year and increases annually to $624,431. It opens this winter.

Restaurant rents are naturally increasing because of the top-dollar being paid for Aspen homes since the pandemic, Setterfield noted, though she added that several restaurants coming in are sub-letting their space under pre-existing lease terms. Through September, the average single-family home price in Aspen was $11.66 million, compared with $10.2 million in the same time period of 2020, $7.19 million in 2019, and $6.45 million in 2018, according to the Aspen Board of Realtors

As home prices and rents go up, menu prices apparently are following suit.

Catch Steak’s online menu has steaks starting at $46 (8-ounce New York strip), which is the only one available under $50. Steaks on Chica’s Miami menu all top $60, while a lamb rack is priced at $78 while a salmon dish is $38.

A rendering of the dining room in CHICA, which is scheduled to open this winter in the Residences at Little Nell. (Courtesy image)

Those prices, while not a deterrent for the well-heeled who live and visit Aspen, can be a repellent for the working locals and residents. Though a meal at the locally owned Big Wrap or Grateful Deli can hover in the $9 to $12 range, neither downtown eatery is open at night; places like Hickory House, New York Pizza and 520 Grill enjoy local support, but gone are Johnny McGuire’s, Ryno’s Pizzeria and La Cantina, for instance, where menu prices also weren’t bank-breakers for the working class.

Developer Hunt and investors own the 204 S. Galena building. They also own the old Main Street Bakery spot and the Buckhorn Arms building on East Cooper Avenue where Johnny McGuire’s and Domino’s, as well as other small eateries that came and went, once fed the masses. As well, Hunt and his backers own the property where the Bidwell Building — home of Ryno’s Pizzeria — was torn down on East Cooper Avenue. Redevelopment eyed for the location, as well as the demolition of the Hyman building, pushed out those three restaurants frequented by locals. The venerable Red Onion bar and restaurant’s space also was acquired by Hunt. It is empty now.

People dine inside of The Red Onion on the walking mall in Aspen on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The closures are being felt locally, Mayor Torre acknowledged at an Aspen City Council annual treat in July, noting “we’ve seen such a detoriation” of dining establishments frequented by locals.

“Currently, we have several locally priced affordable restaurants that are not in operation because of redevelopment, and it’s impacting us community wide,” he said.

Chris Lanter, co-owner of the Cache Cache and Home Team BBQ restaurants, said he understands why such people as Jimmy Yeager — the face and owner of Jimmy’s — stepped out of the business.

Jimmy Yeager speaks to longtime guests in the dining room of Jimmy’s on the final Food and Wine weekend for the restaurant on Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Jimmy’s is being taken over McGuire Moorman Lambert Hospitality Group, the Austin, Texas-based company that opened Clark’s Oyster Bar where Little Annie’s once was. It has yet to file a liquor-license application with the city.

“They’re cashing in after 25 years of busting their butts,” Lanter said, adding “it’s not like any of those restaurants that sold were in financial trouble.”

Yet the pandemic changed the game for many people. Shutdowns and capacity restrictions slowed business, and forced some industry veterans to reconsider their careers.

The pandemic, Setterfield theorized, was an accelerant for what already was shift in the restaurant landscape. Other shifts in Aspen, including the urban exodus to ski towns throughout the West, also come into play. The changing demographic amounts to a greater demand for high-end dining establishments, even for ritzy Aspen.

“I’m beginning to the think the pandemic made things happen more quickly,” she said. “It’s the same kind of trend when people were buying up those homes in Aspen, the next thing they are wanting is retail stores and then restaurants. To me, it’s interesting because when the pandemic first started, there were people thinking this was the end of restaurants.”

Jessica Lischka and Kayla Feld take a Mezcal shot behind the bar of Jimmy’s on the final Food and Wine weekend before closing its doors on Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Evidently, it’s not the end — at least not in Aspen. According to the city’s latest sales tax report, Aspen restaurants and bars reported revenue of $18.9 million from January through August, up 22.7% over the same eight months in 2020 and 17.7% over 2019 when there was no pandemic to contend with.

Another trend unfolding locally can be seen with Craig and Samanth Cordts-Pearce, who reopened the Woody Creek Tavern this year after buying and adding it to their collection of Aspen restaurants that include CP Burgers, The Wild Fig, The Monarch, and SteakHouse NO. 316.

Other local restaurant expansions have included New York Pizza into Carbondale this year, giving it three eateries in the Roaring Fork Valley. Local resident Carlos Solorzano-Smith, a former sommelier at Matsuhisa, is the majority owner of Aspen Hospitality Group, which recently bought Duemani and Acquolina in Aspen.

“You can see local consolidation,” said Tom Engleman, owner of A La Car Restaurant Delivery Service in Aspen. “There are people following what Craig and Sam are doing.”

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