25 Things No One Else Will Tell You About Aspen Dining
Who has the best steak in town? What about the most authentic pasta dishes? And where can I get a flat white, a Kobe dog, a grilled donut sandwich, or a $200 bottle of beer? (Answer: Not all at the same place.) We’ve turned the town upside down and shaken its pockets for the best, the latest, and the most useful dining advice ever.
1. How to get that impossible DINNER RESERVATION
(Courtesy of Hotel Jerome concierge Brendan Croney)
- Be a regular.
- Ask your hotel concierge to call.
- Be flexible with time—ask for 6:30 or 8:30 instead of the jammed 7:30 slot.
- Call between 4 and 4:30 p.m., and ask to be called back if there is a cancellation.
- Check online at OpenTable. You never know….
- At places that do not take reservations for lunch, such as Ajax Tavern or White House Tavern, call and ask to be put on the wait list if you are, in fact, “headed right over.” Then head right over.
- Be nice. Always.
- Be rude or arrogant. Ever.
- Ask the concierge to make a backup reservation and then cancel it.
2. What’s the BEST PLACE in town you probably haven’t been to?
> Chefs Club, at the St. Regis Hotel.
3. What’s the BEST DISH in town you probably haven’t tried?
> Onion soubise, at Plato’s, at the Aspen Meadows.
4. The BEST MEXICAN restaurant in town doesn’t sell combo plates or burritos
> But who cares? At Zocalito, the stuffed pepper is a rare pasilla de Oaxaca, served with a red mole, while the grilled skirt steak comes with a sauce made from an even rarer negro chilhuacle pepper, imported directly from Oaxacan farmers by owner Michael Beary. There’s a lot more to the menu than these, but don’t worry: they do serve excellent guacamole. You can even get it topped with fried grasshoppers.
5. The DESSERT of the moment is...
> This is not the first time we’ve sung the praises of Ashley Jenkin, the resident pastry whiz at the Viceroy Snowmass’s Eight K restaurant, but for this coming ski season she’s broken new ground with her lineup of sophisticated gluten-free, dairy-free desserts. At first glance, this gorgeous chocolate cake looks—and trust us, tastes—merely luscious, but when you know it’s made without any dairy or wheat products (we are sworn to secrecy about a couple of surprising key ingredients), it becomes even more impressive. Don’t miss her gluten-free baguettes, either.
6. How to SCORE A SEAT for the best bar menus
> Want a coveted bar seat or lounge table at the perpetually packed Cache Cache? For starters, consider breaking up into parties of two, which makes it easier to snag perches at the bar itself. Even if you’re dining solo, show up at 6 p.m. pronto on weekends and during high season, or be prepared to wait for the crab beignets and coq au vin. You’ll have to be even earlier at L’Hostaria or Jimmy’s. Failing that, try one of our town’s less known but still great bar menus. Our favorites include Ellina, home of the chicken Milanese and ahi tuna tacos; and the straight-out-of-Paris Brexi, where a grilled hanger steak with parmesan frites and a glass of Cotes du Rhone is perfect winter food. And don’t overlook the new bar menu at the Little Nell’s Element 47, with its killer burger.
Bonus Tip: Just because you’re sitting at the bar, you don’t have to eat only from the bar menu. Any restaurant in town will be happy to let you order off the regular dining room menu. (But the reverse is seldom true.)
7. Our LOCAL SUSHI BARS have great cooked food, too
> We love raw tuna as much as the next person, but there’s no shame in heading for Kenichi, Takah Sushi, or Matsuhisa and ordering food that comes medium rare or better. After all, it wasn’t just jalapeño yellowtail that put Nobu Matsuhisa on the map; things like his Peruvian-style anticuchos, the broiled black cod with miso, and rock shrimp tempura in that irresistible creamy, spicy sauce didn’t hurt. At Kenichi, we can’t resist the mustard salmon and the five-spice duck confit. And what would dinner be at Takah without atomic shrimp or lobster?
8. VEAL IS BACK, though maybe it never left...
> Swordfish has returned to local menus these days after years of overfishing, and foie gras, reviled by some, is so common hereabouts that it’s known as Red Mountain Meatloaf. So why get in a twist about eating veal? It’s responsibly raised these days by conscientious ranchers, and popular all over town. Here’s a partial list of our favorites:
- Veal cheeks at Creperie du Village
- Pounded and grilled veal chop at Campo de Fiori
- Veal ossobuco at Cache Cache
- Veal short ribs with horseradish parsnip puree at bb’s
- Veal parm at Brunelleschi’s
- Crispy veal sweetbreads at Rustique
- Veal scalloppini at Wild Fig
- Veal chop at Piñons
- Then there’s L’Hostaria, where no fewer than seven veal dishes stud the menu. There’s everything from delicate vitello tonnato, the famous Milanese appetizer of pounded raw veal topped with a tuna/caper/anchovy sauce, to a braised veal shank fit for Paul Bunyan. In between are the popular pounded and breaded veal chop served over an arugula salad and the classic saltimbocca alla Romana, which, fittingly, translates to “jump in mouth.”
9. Where to buy a NICE LOCAL FOOD GIFT to take home
> Aspen Emporium and Flying Circus has local honey, salsa, chocolate truffles, coffee mugs and bowls, all made locally. And don’t forget the great selection of doggie treats. The Emporium is surely the only place in town where you pick up a great hostess gift while sucking air at the O2 bar or getting a reading from a psychic.
10. The LEMON RICOTTA PANCAKE war is heating up
> Chef Matt Zubrod has added these rich but featherweight flapjacks to his weekend brunch menu at bb’s Kitchen, throwing down a challenge to the long-held hegemony of the Little Nell, where lemon ricotta pancakes have been on the menu seemingly forever. Zubrod is betting on house-made ricotta and a blueberry-ginger compote to carry the day.
11. You can now spend $200 on a BOTTLE OF BEER
> Seriously. At HOPS Culture, a 750 ml bottle of Scaldis Prestige, from Belgium’s Dubuisson brewery, will set you back about as much as a midpriced Burgundy at one of our upscale dining rooms. Alas, our accounting department prevented us from offering first-hand tasting notes, but Hops proprietor Bill Guth reports that he’s sold three bottles of the oak barrel–aged Strong Ale (with 13 percent alcohol) since stocking this beer in July.
12. SECRET DISHES: not on the menu, but just ask and ye shall receive
- Crêperie du Village: The Taste of Raclette (“All of the classic ingredients of the shared, tabletop version but in a single-person, plated portion.”)
- Big Wrap: Rafting Pesto Wrap (“Poblano-cilantro pesto, grilled chicken, toasted pumpkin seeds, jicama slaw, corn salsa, spinach tortilla.”)
- Annette’s Mountain Bake Shop: Cubano sandwich (“That’s marinated roast pork, ham, cheese, pickle, mustard.”)
- Grateful Deli: Grilled donut sandwich (“You bring us a donut, we’ll slice it and grill it and fill it with ham, bacon, cheese, or whatever. Try to avoid cream-filled.”)
- Caribou Club: L’Ami Louis roast chicken (“The classic from the legendary Paris bistro. Served whole for two people. Requires a day or two notice.”)
13. When it comes to GREAT STEAK, one place is head and shoulders above the rest…
> Aspen is awash in Italian-style steaks, high-end beef from 7X Ranch, and less exalted cuts like tri-tip and teres major. But by popular acclaim (and our opinion, too), look no further than the obvious for the best steak in town. Steakhouse No. 316 is our only steak-centric dining room, and they do it oh-so right. It’s the special 1,800-degree broiler that gets that crusty char and salty, pink-tinged juices.
14. Batter up: GREAT FRIED STUFF
- Acquolina: Anelli salad, with fried calamari, artichokes, and zucchini
- White House Tavern: Fried chicken sandwich on homemade bun
- Square Grouper: Gumbo fries, the ultimate poutine
- Justice Snow’s: Chickpea fries with smoked tomato-date ketchup and harissa yogurt
- Takah Sushi: Tempura veggies
15. Some of the best food in town is served at our most CASUAL RESTAURANTS
> The big guns often have to play it on the safe side—their clientele is more conservative and they cater to loyal customers who would rebel if their favorite dishes changed even one iota (just consider the Freddy salad at Piñons). The newer, more casual places can air it out a little, going long with something edgier, trendier, foodier, whatever you want to call it. Consider Matt Zubrod’s new duck egg chilaquiles at bb’s; last summer’s local tomato and peach salad at HOPS Culture; the grilled beef and mango banh mi sandwich with Kewpie mayo at 39 Degrees; or the grilled watermelon and burrata salad at the Meatball Shack. Even the J-Bar gets into the act, with mini Kogi bbq tacos and jars of the soft, spicy salami called nduja. One thing these dishes have in common? They are beer food supreme.
16. At the same time, DINING HEAVYWEIGHTS are upping their game
> There’s new energy at the Little Nell’s Element 47 under chef Brian Moscatello (check out the revamped bar menu, too) and at Rustique, where chef Ulises Salas has locals swooning over his bouillabaisse. But perhaps no place has worked harder on renewing itself lately than Cache Cache. Chef de cuisine Nate King, working with longtime executive chef Chris Lanter and owner Jodi Larner, has begun incorporating the products from Paonia’s five-acre Dogpatch Farm, which the restaurant now leases and hopes to purchase soon. Everything from foraged watercress to farm-raised fennel, kale, and tomatoes finds its way onto the beautifully composed plates.
17. VEGAN can (sometimes) compete with bacon…
> Spring Café, the sunny, gleaming-white corner space that opened last year, has raised the bar on vegetarian and vegan fare in the valley, and locals have responded by packing the place, despite the beefy prices. The refreshing cacao shake—cocoa powder, frozen banana, and almond milk—is our favorite of the smoothies, and for lunch it’s hard to resist the Highlands Bowl, with its perfectly cooked vegetables and thick peanut sauce. The vegan avocado tempeh reuben sounds preposterous but would satisfy even the most hard-core paleo dieter.
18. Where to get the MOST BANG FOR YOUR BUCK
> At the Aspen Dollar Bar, a mere $6 buys a juicy prime rib sandwich every Wednesday until they run out. For dessert, head over to CP Burger, where $5 buys a thick, creamy milkshake. For another $4 they’ll add booze.
19. GOAT is finally trendy here
> It may be the world’s most popular meat, but you’d never know it around Aspen—until recently, that is. It probably started in Carbondale with Mark Fischer’s braised goat agnolotti at Town (and before that, Six89), which has been on and off his menu for several years. Now goat has arrived upvalley, with goat tacos recently appearing on the menu at Zocalito (it’s roasted and served with a complex Oaxacan-style mole sauce) and in a tasty goat and pork sausage made by cheese maven Wendy Mitchell for her new Meat & Cheese café.
20. Where to get a GOOD ESPRESSO
> Aspen is not exactly Portland when it comes to great coffee. Most espresso drinks here feature overroasted beans and/or too much milk. Victoria’s has the Aussie coffee drinks mastered, but espresso purists should make their way up to SO, the top-floor café of the new Aspen Art Museum, where Craig Fulmer of local coffee roaster Rock Canyon Coffee proves that even an automated espresso machine can turn out a first-rate macchiato. Bonus: the decaf is terrific, too.
21. HOT DOGS are both hot and haute these days
> Frankly speaking, we’re not surprised that Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein’s 1964 drawing Hot Dog just sold for nearly $2 million at a New York auction. Just consider that high-quality dogs are barking all over Aspen this winter. Leading the pack are the various upscale hot dogs at the Hyatt’s Bison Bar, the work of Caribou Club chef Miles Angelo, and the Kobe dogs with garlic ketchup—a pigs-in-the-blanket riff—at HOPS Culture. Other worthy wieners can be found all over the valley, from CP Burger in Aspen to the Nest at the Viceroy Snowmass and even Fatbelly Burgers down in Carbondale, where the tube steaks are made with local grass-fed beef.
22. You can dine well in SNOWMASS for days now
> Of course, there’s the formidably delicious Eight K at the Viceroy hotel, and The Artisan at the Stonebridge sails along quietly but oh-so tastefully. But have you tried any of the seven different types of mussels at Ricard Brasserie? How about the sesame eggplant or Chiang Mai curry noodles at Bia Hoi? And here’s a shocker: one of only two wood-fired pizza ovens in the valley now resides at the new Slopeside Lanes, one level down off the mall. (The other is at Mezzaluna, by the way.) This $30,000 piece of work, imported from Italy, is fired with chunks of cherry and apple wood—your pepperoni pie never had it so good.
23. Our most interesting ETHNIC CUISINE just might be … Australian
> Aspenites can often be heard bemoaning the local lack of authentic, full-throttle flavors from, say, India, Greece, Spain, or Southeast Asia. But here’s the upside: we’ve got killer food from Down Under at Victoria’s. For starters, they’ve got the Oz coffee scene covered, from excellent flat whites to short blacks. There’s thick homemade yogurt with Oz-inflected additions like wattle seed, all-natural, house-made gelatos in flavors like palm sugar or grapefruit marmalade, and pastries, soups, and hot pockets (Breggies?). No wonder there’s a line out the door most mornings.
24. Where to indulge a MUFFIN CRAVING
> Sure, there are times when it seems like not a single carb has ever passed the lips of Aspen’s svelte locals. But it’s a lie. Want proof? Check out their orders at Peach’s Corner Cafe. The rich cappuccino muffin packs a strong coffee wallop, while the French toast muffin perfectly evokes slices of carefully sautéed egg-dipped bread, sweet enough so you can skip the side of syrup. Both are worth every (considerable) calorie.
25. Use your noodle: the six most AUTHENTIC PASTA dishes in town
- Acquolina: Orechiette with broccoli rabe and sausage
- Casa Tua: Trofie al pesto Genovese with potato and haricots verts
- Zeno: Wild mushrooms with housemade fettuccini
- Campo de Fiori: Spaghetti bottarga, with Sardinian bottarga, tomatoes, and red chiles
- L’Hostaria: Lasagna Bolognese, the chef’s mother’s recipe. All beef, no pork or veal
- Annette’s Mountain Bake Shop: Fino’s southern Italy style lasagna, with small, handmade meatballs