What made you decide to sell Jimmy’s?
Austin’s McGuire Moorman Lambert contacted me in April of this year and made the perfect offer. [It was] a good time to make a life change.
Were you conflicted about selling an iconic Aspen establishment to an out-of-state hospitality group?
They’ve exhibited a magnificent track record of remodeling historic properties in and outside of Aspen ... like turning Little Annie’s into Clark’s Oyster Bar, and they work with the community, not against it. I appreciate their presence in Aspen.
You opened Jimmy’s on Saturday night of the Food & Wine Classic in 1997. That’s either the best or worst idea imaginable.
We had eight weeks from the time I signed the papers, and I thought there was no way we’d be ready—we were still under construction. [Wine expert and sommelier] Joshua Wesson offered to help me build the opening wine list, and we held a small private event for a winery Friday night. Afterward, there was a knock on the door, and it was Josh, [chef/restaurateur] Jimmy Bradley, and [sommelier] Steve Olson. We opened a bottle of mezcal and drank into the wee hours; it was Bradley’s idea to have a “whisper party” the next night after the Best New Chef’s dinner.
A “whisper party”? That sounds scandalous.
The three of them went around and whispered in the ears of a very select group of attendees that we were having an invite-only cocktail soft opening after the dinner. Over 700 people came. We poured an ungodly number of drinks.
How instrumental was that event to Jimmy’s success?
I give a lot of credit to Food & Wine over the years for making our bar program successful, but there’s a lot of luck involved. I also had the confidence to sign a 20-year lease. My business philosophy from day one was, “I know what I’m doing. I’ve honed my skills in Aspen and Manhattan. I’m ready.”
What was your vision for Jimmy’s?
I wanted a neighborhood place, but it was always meant to be a combination of high-end steak and wine house and a local’s bar with comfort food. We opened very slowly and under the radar, seating only half of the dining room, so locals could feel it was their place; I wanted them to feel a sense of ownership. We didn’t start advertising for eight months. But the bar was always meant to be the focal point.
What was your role on a typical night?
For the first three years, I cooked part-time on the line, until we hired [The Little Nell executive chef] Matt Zubrod. After that, I was doing the ordering and working as host, and I was invariably behind the bar at some point every night, much to the chagrin or delight of my bartenders.
Yet your lack of staff turnover was unparalleled for a ski town bar.
It’s enormously gratifying. Our newest front-of-house employee was hired in 2017, and some have been with us for over 18 years. For the last six years, some of my staff and I started traveling together to parts unknown, chasing down spirits, wine, food, and culture. I’ve always been clear that Jimmy’s is as much about who I work with as what I do.
The wall signatures. How did that get started?
In 1998, Jimmy Bernstein, a restaurateur from Florida, said, “I’m a Jimmy, I want to sign next to your name!” He took a Sharpie and went to write on the canvas sign with our logo, which is my signature, and I directed him to the wall instead. The next night, another Jimmy came in and signed. I planned to paint over them, but it just kept happening. Then, Emeril [Lagasse] wrote, “Sorry, I’m not Jimmy. Bam!” and Jacques Pepin wrote, “Jacques wants to be a Jimmy someday.” And that was that.
Are you tempted to take the Wall of Jimmys with you?
Cutting into the wall is a recipe for disaster, so we’ll take photos and memorialize them somehow. The single most treasured asset besides the memories—if you’ll forgive the cheesy sentiment—is the art, which includes custom pieces by Jacques Pepin and painter Earl Biss, and a framed coa de jima (a tool used for harvesting agave) from El Tesoro.
Something you’re going to miss?
The time we open until close, the interaction with guests. I’ll greatly miss hosting events like birthdays, anniversaries, and divorce parties, and mostly, the regular old Tuesday nights.
Something you’re not going to miss?
The hours before and after closing, the grind, the stress of owning and operating a food and beverage establishment.
What’s next for you?
It won’t be usual or expected.
The plan for closing night (September 18 )?
We’re doing just a single turn for dinner service, so the staff can enjoy themselves. We know it’s going to be an overwhelming night. I don’t think there’s a need to quantify the last drink, but a toast with mezcal.
Your thoughts as you walk out the door for the final time?
[Long pause] I know I’ll see a movie-like montage of all of those who chose to work with me over the years and remember the time we spent together.