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Aspen’s allure is that of a glitzy mountain resort where caviar service rings in the après-ski hour and even the dogs make the rounds decked out in Moncler. And sure enough, during my stay in the Colorado ski town, it doesn’t take me long to realize that the dining scene is characterized by pricey mains and wine lists that seem to demand “How high can you go?” But I also discover that despite the five-star pricing, it’s still possible to eat in elevated style on a basecamp budget. That’s because I’ve just hit on a secret that locals have known all along: The best seat is at the bar.

Many of the town’s nearly 100 restaurants offer a pared-down, priced-down and portioned-down (this is middle America, after all) specials list as part of their bar service. Not only is it cheaper to sit in the high chair – it’s also way more fun. I strike up conversations with bartenders and fellow counter companions who give me the scoop on area lore. The drinks they slide my way reassure me that even if I’m interloping on a hidden advantage, these locals are cool with it.

Aspen dining

One of the must-do menus they let me in on is Jimmy’s. Once I get past the sports-bar vibe (albeit upscale) of the barroom, kitted out with several game-tuned TVs, I learn from staff that Jimmy Yeager is Aspen’s de facto culinary ambassador. They tell me he’s a regular host during the town’s annual Food & Wine Classic, and that he’s one of America’s foremost experts on mezcal. Inside jokes scrawled by chef buddies Mario Batali, Bobby Flay and Daniel Boulud mark the walls of the two-decade-old establishment. The menu offers a sustainably sourced selection of American pub fare on which the bar has been artfully raised. I go for the broiled mahi mahi tacos and the jumbo lump blue-crab cakes – made with crab without any perceptible filler, they simply fall apart into delectable meaty chunks.

The bites at Jimmy’s whet my appetite for the next course. Since steak is my ultimate après-ski craving, I head to the Monarch steakhouse and sidle up to the bar, with its old-school gentlemen’s-club decor (all riveted-leather stools and waistcoated barkeeps). The steak comes in everything from tartare to tomahawk, but I decide to go off-piste instead, opting for the Bunny Chow. This bread bowl filled with a Durban-style stew is South African-born co-owner Craig Cordts-Pearce’s tribute to his homeland’s street food. Not to be outdone, his wife Samantha, who studied in Montreal, has devised a succulent braised rabbit poutine – luckily for me, no skimping on the cheese curds.

It turns out every day in Aspen is bar-menu day, but some weekdays are even more of a deal than others. At Nobu Matsuhisa’s restaurant, what looks like a tiny Victorian prospector’s cabin on the outside opens up into a surprisingly sprawling underground dining room. But when Monday Night Football is on, all the action happens around the counter. I join the other bar guests chowing down on value-priced plates of the star chef’s Latin American-influenced Japanese fare, such as bluefin tuna tacos, and sipping shochu-spiked cocktails. Looking over from the standing-room-only bar at the not-so-crowded tables in the dining room, I see a perplexed look on the faces of the fur-swathed diners and notice something I hadn’t expected: a distinct hint of FOMO. What can I say? It’s just better up here.

Jimmy's, 205 S. Mill St., 970-925-6020, www.jimmysaspen.com
The Monarch, 411 S. Monarch St., 970-925-2838, monarchaspen.com
Matsuhisa, 303 E. Main St., 970-355-3044, matsuhisarestaurants.com

 

INSIDER TIPS

3 More Must-Do Bar Menus

The Living Room

Photo: Hotel Jerome

The Living Room

At Hotel Jerome’s fireside lounge, opt for executive chef Rob Zack’s next-level comfort food, like Brussels sprouts served as dipping material for harissa-drizzled hummus and melt-in-your-mouth meatballs (his Italian grandfather’s recipe) on creamy polenta. The chicken soup (egg noodles, schmaltz and all) sells out after a ski day.

hoteljerome.aubergeresorts.com

L’Hostaria

Photo: Courtesy of l’Hostaria

L’Hostaria

There’s a simple elegance to chef Tiziano Gortan’s rustic antipasti and housemade pastas (a bit of trivia: he once worked as pastry chef for U2). Go for the gnocchi al gorgonzola washed down with a glass of Gavi. The bar menu and wine prices are among the best in town.

hostaria.com

Cache Cache

Photo: Chris Lanter

Cache Cache

The French bistro’s sleek counter, lit with the blue glow of a posh nightclub, is likely the reason diners start a night of bar-hopping here. With classics like crab beignets and coq au vin, chef Nathan King’s cuisine – along with a 111-page wine list – ensures appetites are sufficiently sated before guests move on.

cachecache.com

Tags

ASPEN     BARS     COLORADO     FOOD & DRINK     RESTAURANTS    

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