In Aspen, Colorado and the towns of the Roaring Fork Valley, a Mecca for mountain lovers both summer and winter, a great deal of downtown space is devoted to dining and drinking. And that’s the single best reason to head down from the high peaks, whether via ski, snowboard, bicycle or parasail.
As a frequent visitor to Aspen and surrounding areas over the years, a caveat: due to the seasonal nature of tourism in the area, staff turnover at restaurants is notoriously high — both in the kitchen and in the front of house. Therefore, a rave recommendation one season does not guarantee that even six months later a restaurant will still deserve that rave, or even a recommendation. Most restaurants are pretty pricey, though there are a few cheap eats (and that’s relative) that warrant notice.
Many restaurants feature bar menus which are a more reasonably priced option for sampling the goods.
Herewith, a list, mostly of enduring winners and a couple of new, promising spots. At least six new restaurants and delis are scheduled to open this winter — who knows whether they’ll make it to the spring thaw. All the following are in Aspen unless otherwise noted.
Montagna–PRICEY–big wine list
675 E. Durant Street
This lovely, reasonably quiet two-level restaurant in the Relais & Chateau-listed Little Nell Hotel at the base of Aspen Mountain overlooks the courtyard pool, with patio seating all summer. Atmosphere is gracious mountain-style, with horn chandeliers and subdued colors. Under chef Ryan Hardy, a recent American Southwest James Beard finalist, the menu features seasonal fare, much of it provided from Colorado growers and purveyors, including the freshest of produce, fruit and farm-raised elk, deer, lamb and beef. It usually has some of the best service in Aspen.
Entrance at the Gondola Plaza
The tavern’s location, next to a huge open patio at the base of the gondola on Ajax (as Aspen Mountain is known), makes the restaurant a favorite with the lunch crowd year-round. On the numerous sunny days it’s possible to dine en plein air. But it’s also a great nighttime dining spot — relaxed, informal yet comfortable, with booths, tables and a share counter-height table facing the small bar. The menu includes items from a raw bar, tasty soups, grass fed beef burgers with truffle fries, pasta with lamb ragout, and daily specials. Nice selection of micro-brews and wine.
620 E. Hyman Ave.
Opened in 1996 by two Italians with notable restaurant credentials, L’ Hostaria has an extensive menu, primarily northern Italian, and a huge wine list. Tiziano Gortan, the presiding chef-owner, and his various exec chefs turns out tasty and consistent dishes. The restaurant, a lower level location which opens onto a nice-sized outdoor patio, is fun and comfortable, with two dining rooms and a large bar with table seating.
689 Main Street, Carbondale
This charming restaurant, situated in an old brick Victorian with great views of Mt. Sopris from its deck — there’s also a lovely brick patio on the other side of the entrance — was opened by Mark Fischer in 1998. His idea was to bring fine locavore dining down valley. It’s 30 miles northwest of Aspen in the Roaring Fork Valley town of Carbondale. There’s a summer vegetable and herb garden around back that reminds diners just how local it can get. Fischer, another James Beard American Southwest chef finalist, has racked up awards for what he calls “locally sourced imaginative comfort food.” This place is absolutely worth the drive from Aspen, snowstorm notwithstanding. Prices are about 50% less and the crowd tends to have less attitude.
320 S. Mill St.
533 E. Hopkins
303 E. Main St.
In general all these Japanese restaurants feature fresh and tasty but wildly expensive menus, with cooked items as well as sashimi and sushi. Unless one concentrates carefully before ordering, these spots can put a big dent in your wallet. So it’s best to order a few beers or bottles of sake to take some of the pocket pain away. Takah, which changed locations from one underground locale to another about five years ago, is modern, nicely lit and fun. Kenichi, also below grade, though with windows looking out onto a below grade patio, is more traditional, with a smaller sushi bar. Matsuhisa, in a converted Victorian, features a bar and bar table-eating upstairs and on the outside patio. The main space is below ground level. It’s a lovely place, very different from the storefront orginal, Matsuhisa L.A.
105 S. Mill Street
Another worthy survivor of the cutthroat restaurant trade in Aspen, owned by Rob Mobilion and his wife. Pinions food is fabulous though the southwest/western decor in this second floor restaurant could use some refreshing. But it’s a comfortable room with picture window views of Aspen Mountain, and there’s space between tables, making it a great spot to hold the kind of conversation where you can actually hear what the other person says. The service is usually good and there’s a great, though limited, bar menu that costs about 50% less than the dining room. The specialties include fish (wasabi-crusted ahi), venison, lamb and beef, with some Italian, some French, some California-Asian influences.
Ute City Grill
308 E. Hopkins
Ute City, though a newer entry on the Aspen scene, is a sister restaurant to the Aspen stalwart Syzygy, long-owned by Walt Harris of the Florida citrus-growing family, as in Katherine Harris. Both restaurants are now located in the same new building in the spot where the beloved local hang out La Cocina was for several decades. Ute City, the upstairs space, features a comfortable and modern dining room with glass doors that slide fully open in the summer to the adjoining patio, and a separate bar with table dining. There’s a small baby grand at the front of the room which is often manned by jazz-playing local Frank Tadaro. Ute has an inventive upscale menu, a little bistro-like, with imaginatively paired ingredients and pleasing portions. Syzygy, downstairs, is elegant, more muted, featuring fine dining and Rocky Mountain high prices.
Woody Creek Tavern
2858 Upper River Road, Woody Creek
The tavern is a Roaring Fork Valley institution, renowned for the years Hunter Thompson frequented the bar and the years it was owned by his friend George Stranahan, co-founder of the Aspen Center for Physics and the Flying Dog Brewery and the Flying Dog cattle ranch in Woody Creek. It’s a destination for summer cyclists at lunchtime; there’s a huge bike rack in front of the umbrella-covered patio overseen by a large stuffed boar, decorated with Christmas lights and mounted over the front entrance. The busy spot, next to an old trailer park, is equally frequented by locals and tourists day and night. In addition to a big tasty burger and Southwest pork shoulder and pozole chili, the tavern is heavy on Mexican dishes. Local specialties include smoked trout that can be added to a list of lunchtime salads and a rotating group of daily specials. Hunter Thompson news articles are plastered on the walls along with countless postcards and photos. Strings of unusual Christmas lights surround the tin ceiling and the walls. The small bar is classic dive.
Cache Cache Bistro
205 S. Mill St.
Another Aspen stalwart, this French bistro opened more than 20 years ago, was recently remodeled and now features an expanded bar and a comfortable courtyard patio. Classic French and French-American dishes with excellent salads, charcuterie, mussels, fish, beef, Colorado lamb and a lengthy wine list. Will test your credit card limit.
Campo di Fiori
205 S. Mill St.
Campo splits a large sub-grade courtyard patio with Cache Cache, and also has a main dining room and a lively bar with tables and bar menu. This reliable Italian opened 15 years ago by chef Luigi Giordani and his wife, has had terrific staying power due to the tasty offerings, from antipasti to primi to secondi and contorni featuring seasonal specialties. They have impeccably prepared pasta dishes, veal and chicken, steak and fish. It can get very crowded, especially in winter when patio dining is not an option. The decor is Italian-relaxed, with a country feel. The owners have been busy opening branches in Vail, Denver, etc. which results in an occasional disappointing meal or two. But usually no more than that.
Il Mulino – Aspen
520 E. Durant
Opened last year in the Little Nell Residences to the immediate west of the gondola building, this branch of the famed NY village eatery features all the signature antipasti delivered to your table before an order is even taken. Il Mulino aspires to Old World service in a New World mountain chic setting. Beware the outrageous prices, except for off season when the service and kitchen rhythms can be inconsistent. But it’s nicely done Italian food when it comes out right.
205 S. Mill St.
Best pizza in Aspen made on a wood fire in a copper-covered oven. Also salads and simple pasta dishes. Okay prices — for Aspen.
Little Annie’s Restaurant & Bar
512 E. Hyman St.
This Aspen institution has survived more than 30 years of change — with virtually no changes. It’s casual, reasonable and has a cozy mountain cafe air about it, with daily specials posted on the chalkboard at the entrance. The piney interior decor includes objects from the town’s mining days and flags hanging overhead from far flung golf courses. Menu standards include trout, ribs, pasta, burgers, chili and hot and cold sandwiches. The bar pours more beer than spirits.
Now, here are a few places for a coffee break or lunch, especially in the summer:
Jour de Fete
710 E. Durant
An order-at-the-counter French deli and bakery with delicious cooked and vegetable salads, sandwiches and select hot dishes perfect for take-out or casual eat-in.
The Cheese Shop
601 E. Hopkins
In addition to selling a mouth watering and wallet-challenging selection of imported cheeses and sausages, The Cheese Shop offers a great assortment of paninis and huge fresh salads, primarily for takeout or eat in at the communal table or outdoor picnic tables.
The Big Wrap
520 E. Durant
Mainly for takeout — but there are a few bar spots for a great cheap meal near the gondola in winter. This counter-order spot features gourmet wraps, great big salads, soups and a few vegan items. Cheap.
Victoria’s Espresso & Wine Bar
312 S. Mill St.
Overlooking Wagner Park, this is an inviting place to sip a coffee and consume some baked goods in the afternoon, or a gourmet salad or soup for lunch. Small, intimate, friendly. Order-at-the-counter. They’ve recently added local Colorado wines and a few light dinner entrees.
Peaches Corner Cafe
1212 S. Galena
A new entry from long time Aspen restaurateurs, who took over the beloved Cafe Zele’s corner. Outstanding breakfasts and lunches — salads, paninis, soups and quiches, with daily specials posted on butcher paper on the wall behind the counter. They feature baked goods from the wonderful Midland Bakery of Basalt, where one can also have a pleasant lunch.
520 E. Cooper
Promising new locals spot – tiny, with seating for 10-15 inside and as many outside. Diverse burger choices – buffalo, beef, turkey – and salads. Cheap.
320 S. Galena
It’s hard to escape the lure of homemade ice cream and cookies on a summer night in Aspen. There’s always a line, rain or shine. The corner is such a lucrative busking spot for the summer music festival students that they’ve organized nights on which different ensembles perform for those assembled in pursuit of tasty cool sweets. It’s also amazingly popular throughout the snowy winters.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Gail Block and her husband, Elias Davis, are co-hosts at the restuarant recommendation web site atLarrys.com. You can she their biographies and some of their other restaurant recommendations at http://www.atLarrys.com