The Aspen dining scene is the most vibrant in America for a ski resort. Beyond winter, there are plenty of restaurants, cafés and bars to indulge in during all seasons though. Over 30 years old, the Aspen Food and Wine Classics held annually in balmy June flies in foodies and wine-to-tellers from all corners of America. This bazaar of flavours is one of the extraordinary gastronomic events in which the most coveted chefs, on-the-TV food celebrities and wine experts mostly from the US show off their taste-alluring weapons. The best new chefs in America are voted, while swarms of connoisseurs hive into the green valley covered by the leafy aspen trees, and all, not just the trees, are blooming with anticipation.
Whether you visit the Colorado mountain resort during the festival or pop over for other popular events, to ski, hike or mountain bike, in spring, summer, fall or winter, you will need to eat. The Aspen’s gourmet soul will exceed any humble expectations for quite a remote town and treat any palate lavishly. Choose from its casual cafés, brunch holes in the wall, fancy and fun international restaurants and anything naughty imaginable selling parlours. These include freshly baked brownies and cookies teasing your nose with fragrant spices, perfectly brewed barrister coffee, in chocolate or caramel submerged apples on a stick, whatever you want inside filled wraps, and just imagine what else. Indeed, the foodies treasure in Colorado. Aspen satisfies all cravings, so get your bum moving on the slopes to deserve it, and do not just stop in the chalet of the Aspen Club up on the lift, tempting yes, but the marshmallow topped hot chocolate (I find it gross, tried, but many love it!) will wait.
Get the breakfast rolling at the casual eats and cafés in Aspen
In the morning, before commencing all the energy depleting activities, a fortifying breakfast is a must. The caffeine awakening poured into a cup of freshly roasted coffee and a bite into a perfect carb-rich breakfast brownie, fresh from the oven and made at the Paradise Bakery (320 S. Galena Street), make for a great start. Also their warm chocolate chip cookie, fluffy muffins or the ham and cheese croissant are the perfect take aways for the long gondola ride up the Ajax mountain in the winter. On warm and sunny days, you can sit just outside the bakery on practical chairs or the benches jumbled on the pavement.
Another excellent, yet healthier breakfast venue is the Aussie style Victoria Espresso and Wine Bar (510 E. Durant Avenue). There, customised chai lattes, house blended teas and artisan roasted coffee supply high quality caffeine boost. Everything is freshly baked and prepared on the premises. The house granola with yogurt and fruits is a well-balanced energiser for the active day ahead. For the curious imbibers, trying local Colorado wines may spark the creative flow, but it is safer after skiing, not with breakfast.
If your body and mind crave a genuinely hearty American breakfast head to the ultra casual Poppycock’s (665 E. Cooper Ave). Their eggs, homemade sausage patties, country pistachio sausage, and oatmeal buttermilk pancakes have been satisfying big eaters since 1971.
For the late birds, the breakfast burrito at Big Wrap (520 E. Durant Ave. Closed on Sunday) can fill the energy gap at any time after 10am. The giant, mouthwatering, and wholesome wraps also make for a quick lunch. The meaty ‘Wrapzilla‘, vegetarian friendly ‘What’s up doc?’, crispy tacos and the healthier “naked” wraps served without the tortilla as a salad in a bowl, offer something for everyone.
Aspen dining at its best
The conquest for the most popular dining room in town is tight. Matsuhisa (303 E. Main Street), one of the directly operated Japanese-Peruvian (nikkei) restaurants by the world-famous chef Nobu Matsuhisa, still attracts most of the high-rolling foodies and top quality fish lovers. Located downstairs in a charming pale green wooden house the kitchen is headed by Matsuhisa trained chef Nobuko Kang. The “new style” sahimis are exquisite. Another local Asian favourite with a hip vibe, a sushi bar and modern pan-Asian dishes is Kenichi (533 E.Hopkins Avenue). Aspen dining is very diverse, so one rarely gets bored of one type of cuisine there.
Perhaps the most difficult reservation in town remains after a quarter century in operation at Piñons (105 S. Mill Street). The restaurant allures through its sophisticated old world ambiance updated by an artful modern zeal. This veteran of Aspen serves traditional American cuisine featuring mainly local ingredients. Lauded as the best restaurant in town its chef and owner Rob Mobilian takes pride in his prime steak, the espresso seared buffalo tenderloin or Colorado raised herb roosted lamb as well as the trout.
L’Hostaria (620 E. Hyman Avenue) operated by Italy-bred co-owner Tiziano is best for an Italian dinner. The plate-stretching Veal Milanese lives up to Tiziano’s past restaurant experience in Milan. Known for the best bar menus that will not break the bank, it is always busy, although I find the food at the restaurant better and also by serving a much larger portion of the celebrated veal dish the cost is negated if you are hungry. In a true Aspen spirit the restaurant is adorned with art. The wines were brought from Italy as well as California.
Local take on the classic French cuisine offers the trendy Cache Cache (205 S.Mill Street). On the menu feature the all-time bistro darlings like foie gras, escargots (snails in parsley butter), onion soup, mussels, steak and Colorado lamb. When possible the ingredients are locally sourced. The blue-hued bar by the entrance has remained a catchy hotspot for years. With over 5.000 bottles selection, the restaurant prides in one of the best wine lists in town. Having a tough time choosing one? Its Paris-born sommelier makes the process much more palatable.
For wine, The Little Nell Hotel (675 E. Durant Avenue) boosts with an award winning list so you can experience Aspen dining at its most flamboyant. Whether glaring at the sun on the deck or swishing comfortably inside one of the leather coated booths inside the Nell’s Ajax Tavern, you will salivate over the succulent double cheeseburger. Hardly resisted, their fragrant truffle fries tease the skiers’ noses as they line up at the bottom of the pompously named Silver Queen gondola at the bottom of the Aspen Mountain.
Taking this gondola all the way up drops you at The Sundeck. The highly popular self-service cafeteria also hosts exciting full moon dinners and daily feeds hundreds of hungry skiers. The views from the window seats and from outdoor deck transport you into a natural wonderland. A morning yoga session for the early birds is free for all who make it up there on time.
During the winter, ski a few runs down to Bonnie’s (above lift 3 of the Ajax Express), a great option for high quality mountain food devotees. Must try is the apple strudel, but also the white bean chilli or the breakfast pancakes, that motivate even some lazier skiers to get up early and board the gondola.
Beyond Aspen dining, the Cloud 9 Alpine Bistro is the best dining spot in the nearby Highlands. The sprawling mountain range is about a 10 minute car ride from Aspen. Cloud 9 is the most Alpine style sit down chalet with a charming, yet vibrant atmosphere. Every Thursday evening a snow cat picks up pre-booked guests for a decadent dinner of fondue and raclette inside.
Depending on the season, pick snowshoes, cross-country skis or hiking boots and drive to Ashcroft. There, you can also rent any type of equipment and work yourself out to the most memorable dining spot in the region at the wooden chalet of Pine Creek Cookhouse (12500 Castle Creek Road). The Nordic ski trails are frequently groomed so you will have to purchase a day or a half-day pass to take the run along the river that rewards with a pristine natural scenery. If you get too tired or had too much wine at lunch, you can take a ride back on a fairy horse carriage. The later, is surely more fun for kids.
Back in Aspen and off the piste is another excellent local eatery with a distinct character. The White House Tavern (302 E. Hopkins Avenue) inside the historic Carpenter Gothic white house from 1883 is one of the oldest buildings in Aspen. No reservations, who comes first grabs any available table. Feast on genuine gourmet salads, all in-house made burgers and sandwiches. The fish and with roasted prime rib filled French dip sandwiches are both generous treats for active foodies. If drinking alcohol, do not forget an ID. In the US whether you are 20 or 50 the law requires a proof of age before any liquor is poured into your glass.
Aspen can be a hedonist’s paradise, yet there is more to indulge in than just food and drinks. Check the arts, natural walks, the frequent intellectually stimulating conferences and more in my TRAVEL feature.