How to Eat and Drink Your Way through Aspen and Crested Butte

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How to Eat and Drink Your Way through Aspen and Crested Butte

Like many of Colorado’s small mountain towns, Aspen and Crested Butte share the same origin story: a rough and tumble mining town. But one key distinction helps inform their modern identity. Aspen, first founded in 1879 and originally named Ute City before changing it to Aspen in 1893, hit it big with silver mining, which led to the rapid development of the city’s infrastructure, one that still stands today—albeit with loads of contemporary upgrades. And while the population dipped with the end of the silver boom, Aspen also benefits from a chain of mountains that now hosts four world-class ski resorts. And the city has grown beyond its outdoor identity as well, thanks in large part to the establishment of the Aspen Institute in 1949, which hosts world-class thinkers, art happenings, and presentations, as well as displaying one of the more complete collection of Hubert Bayer’s Bauhaus art in the world.

Crested Butte, meanwhile, didn’t strike it rich with silver mining. Established in 1878, it first operated as a supply point for prospectors and became a hub for the considerably less profitable mining of coal before eventually graduating into a hub for the nearby ski resort of the same name, founded in the early 1960s. Unlike Aspen, the town of Crested Butte itself—which takes up a footprint of only 10 square blocks—was established as buildings were needed. And while the facades have mostly changed, the structures themselves remain largely unchanged in the decades that followed its origin.

In many ways, these two mountain towns stand in contrast to each other—in atmosphere, ski culture, and the food and drink on offer.

Even among non-skiers, Aspen exists in some pretty rarified air. In many people’s mind, it’s the land of fur coats and deep pockets—and the real estate prices, always a constant point of conversation in any mountain town, certainly reflect that. The town itself remains refreshingly pedestrian-friendly, and you can reach the gondola of Ajax Mountain (often dubbed the local’s resort) by walking a few blocks from anywhere in town. That accessibility is supplemented by loads of haute establishments, from the famed Little Nell—a five-star hotel with one of the area’s best après sun decks, Champagne (mostly) optional—to legions of art galleries as well as the multi-story Aspen Art Museum. The city even has a mural from street muralist celeb Shephard Fairey from when he took up residence at the Aspen Institute.

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But for a town with a rich and sorted history, surprisingly some of the best restaurants on offer are new. Betula serves French pan-American cuisine that includes tuna ceviche, grilled octopus with fresno peppers, a vast array of rotisserie options, and seafood so fresh you forget you’re miles away from the ocean. And while its beer list is surprisingly lacking given the state’s role in the craft brewery space, its wine list and cocktails make up for any absence. The Yellow Paloma cocktail—a mixture of blanco tequila, yellow bell pepper juice, grapefruit and ginger syrup, cilantro tincture, and lime juice with a rim dusted with savory salt—is served in a bird-shaped vessel complete with a fresh flower for a tale, personifying the whimsical atmosphere of the bustlingly, open-kitchen restaurant.

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Clark’s Oyster Bar is another new-comer, serving oysters on a half shell from all coasts of the United States as well as an array of seafood. Both fish-forward restaurants benefit from the proximity of Eagle Airport, which receives fresh shipments daily, and does a great job inverting the “must serve game meat” expectations of dining in a mountain town. A sister restaurant to the Clark’s in Austin, the Aspen outpost serves $12 burgers and $8 martinis during their daily happy hour, as well as an $8 beer-and-a-shot combo for Aspen locals only.

And the on-mountain cuisine is also buoyed by the proximity to the town. The kitchen at the Sun Deck on Ajax Mountain is run by the folks at Little Nell, and the walk-up-and-order option of a pork belly ramen makes for a singular option for mid-day sustenance.

Founded in 2008, Aspen Brewing was the first brewery in the city, though they lost their former HQ overlooking Ajax a few years back due to real estate shenanigans. Its new facility is located near the airport, but they also recently opened Aspen Tap in downtown, a gastropub and tasting room that serves all of their beers like the iconic Last Season’s Blonde pale ale and the Cloud 9 Saison. Visit during happy hour and you can still snag $5 pints, a true Aspen rarity.

The Jerome Hotel stands as another constant in the city, though it’s a far cry from its former identity when dirtbag climbers could snag a rough-shackle room for $10. Now part of the Auberge Resort Collection, the Jerome manages to pull off an aesthetic that’s funky-chic and fun without trying too hard. And thankfully they barely touched the famed J Bar during the renovations. That spot once stood as the local watering hole for miners many decades ago as well as local luminaries like Hunter S. Thompson, who lived in the valley and once famously ran for sheriff. You can still order prohibition- and mining-era cocktails that’ll peel the paint off your metaphorical wall, along with bar food and a robust offering Colorado micro-brew heroes like Odell’s IPA.

The same owners of the hotel also recently opened Bad Harriet. Positioned a short walk from the Jerome, the new bar is housed in the lower level of the former Aspen Times building. Try to enter and you’ll find the doors locked—all the better to reinforce its speakeasy vibe. And once they let you in and escort you down a wide stairway lined with old typewriters to a table in the spacious lounge, you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped into some part of 1920s Manhattan—and the cocktails certainly echo back to that era as well. Free bites of food circulate, and all the cocktails on the menu are named after strong women in history. If you can limit yourself to one, go for the signature Bad Harriet, a mix of locally-made Woody Creek Distiller’s straight rye along with blood orange juice, passion fruit, roasted and mashed pineapple, and lemon, poured tableside from an antique silver flask.

Another new addition to Aspen continues the welcome trend in female-forward distilling. The Marble Bar, located in the lobby of the Hyatt Residents, serves as the tasting room for Marble Distillery, which is housed in the town of Carbondale, about 30 minutes from Aspen. Founded five years ago by Connie Baker, the distillery uses chunks of marble sourced from the quarry in Marble, CO (the same place that supplied the marble for the Lincoln Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) to filter the base spirits, which lends a nice element of spice to the vodka. They also make a play on Limoncello by infusing ginger instead of citrus, creating a biting aperitif and the Moonlight Espresso, a coffee liquor modeled after the recipe of the founder’s mother. Marble also just released their first batch of brown spirits, aged in barrels used for a reserve Ginger-cello, including a whiskey, a bourbon, and a rye. The tasting room only serves Marble spirits, either in a tasting flight or in cocktails, including “exclusive” recipes named after old Aspen bars, a Marble-Rita that comes with a touch of jalapeno to keep it from becoming too sweet, and a play on a White Russian, aptly named The Dude, made with the Moonlight Espresso Liquor, heavy cream, ginger beer, and lime Or go for the Crunchy Dude variant and sub in almond milk, or add a shot of vodka (The Dude Abides) or a shot whiskey (The Whiskey Dude) for a few extra bucks.

In short, there are a lot of imbibing options for such a small town. And the legions of tourists—most of whom look like they fell out of some Beverly Hills storefront—keep the town buzzing. But just underneath that scene lives a robust local population, people who largely make their living off the travel game and are fervently tapped into what’s happening just beyond the tourist glow. Locals who haven’t “dropped out” to live in the mountains. They read both local papers each day, and earnestly debate the merits of the never-ending discussions around proposed developments coming to town while slinging drinks for the vacationing hordes. These locals are really the ones that benefit from events like the Bauhaus Exhibit at the Aspen Institute, celebrating the art movement’s 100th anniversary this year, the ones who shoulder up to The Red Onion, the closest Aspen comes to a local dive, and the ones that can turn you onto the best runs on any of the mountains.

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If that local’s vibe lies as an undercurrent of Aspen, it dominates in Crested Butte, which sits about 30 miles as the crow flies east of Aspen, but requires a four-hour drive, weather permitting, via a scenic stretch of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. And the town also attracts a more dedicated snow-obsessed visitor considering the nearby ski resort rates 61% of its named runs as advanced or expert, along with more than 34 miles of dedicated cross-country skiing anchored around the Crested Butte Nordic Center. It was snow-choked from a recent storm when I arrived in early March, just before the flood of spring breakers, and the town carried a sleepy vibe that felt instantly welcome after my time in the manicured environs of Aspen. The ski mountain looms over the town—when the weather isn’t socked in—and has its own epicenter of pedestrian-friendly dining and lodging. But visitors are best served to stay in town, and just use the free shuttle to get to and from the slopes—provided you can find lodging at one of the town’s smaller hotels or via VRBO and Airbnb.

Scarp Ridge Lodge ranks as the haute options in-town. During winter, you’ll need a group of deep-pocketed friends to rent out the five king rooms and a multi-level children’s bunk house inspired by Chutes and Ladders, a stay that also includes full breakfast, an open bar, and the option to cat ski near the town of Irwin, a sleepy burg that gets the most snow in the state. Very Aspen for Crested Butte, some locals might argue. But Eleven, the property’s parent company, also brought a lot of jobs to the town, which is always welcome.

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The lodge’s parent company also runs the Sopris House with three king rooms and a twin suite and offers three spacious lofts for nightly stays positioned over the Public House right on Elk Ave, Crested Butte’s main drag. Eleven also owns one of the town’s two breweries. Just now two years old, Irwin Brewing’s 15-barrel facility is located a bit off the central part of Crested Butte, but you can sample all of its 10 beers at the Public House, including a Mexican lager and a crisp pilsner that both rank in with an elevation-friendly lower ABV, as well as more robust offerings like their 7.5% hazy IPA and a rich oatmeal stout. The brewery is working on the beer names and packaging, but the tap handles come from railroad ties archived from the line that once ran between Irwin and Crested Butte. The Public House also has a basement-level music venue, challenging touring bands like the North Mississippi All-Stars to see if their tour bus can brave the roads during the heart of winter.

All of the establishments lining Elk Ave compete for your attention, including Djangos, a tapa-style restaurant with a killer Negroni made with Peach Street Jackalope Gin, locally-sourced fare at Sunflower, and Mountain Spirits Liquor, which stocks six-packs from Denver’s Crooked Stave Brewing. But Montanya Distillers should make the must-visit list, easily one of the state’s best spirit-makers.

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Founded in 2008 by president and CEO Karen Hoskin, another femme pioneer in distilling the place makes its rum on-site in a pair of copper stills on the second floor of the tasting room/restaurant before they hit wood off-site. At first, rum might feel like an odd spirit to craft in the mountains of Colorado. But Caribbean rum distillers often carry their barrels into the mountains to age to take advantage of the temperature fluctuations that occur at higher elevations, which force more rum into and out of the barrel’s oak pores. Montanya also uses water originating from snow melt and spring water charged from an aquifer 350 below the town to down-proof the 140-proof rum down to a bottle-friendly 80.

Their range of rums—which range from evergreen spirits aged in barrels sourced from Laws Colorado Whiskey to limited releases like the Montanya Exclusiva, which rests for six months in French oak that previously aged cab sav and port from Sutcliffe Vineyards after the initial aging—are a far cry from what you’d expect. More like whiskey than some sort of saccharine sugar bomb, their spirits are spicy, complex, and surprising. They stand well on their own, and really shine in cocktails like the house-made Maharaja, a mix of their Oro Rum along with North Indian spices, fresh-pressed ginger, fresh lime, and cardamom. They’re served alongside a menu of food inspired by global street foods, with everything from ramen to fries served with bulgogi beef and a banh mi sauce.

The resort’s on-mountain dining follows the expected route of quick-grab burgers and sun decks, unless you opt for lunch at Uley’s Cabin—and you should, with the caveat that it’s easy to eat too much, which can making skiing back to the base a slow proposition. Named after a local bootlegger, the white tablecloth establishment manages to merge elegance with the resort’s rugged vibe. Ski boots and worn Gore-Tex pair nicely with a respectable beer and wine list and the easy temptations of a spicy paella with shrimp, mussels, and diver scallops ideal to warm the body and soul while the snow falls. Visitors can also sign up for a winter dinner at the cabin, a five-course prix-fixe menu including a sleigh ride for $120, excluding drinks.

Back in town, beer-lovers should earmark a night to explore the expansive menu of on-tap beers at Brick Oven Pizzeria and Pub, located on Elk. The place boasts a 30-tab beer network engineered by Thirsty Aid Beer Systems. The offerings cover the gamut—stouts, porters, IPAs, along with rotating taps that include hard-to-find sours, and a few lines dedicated to craft legends like Melvin and Crooked Stave. The cellar list, which grew from the owners’ own collection of hard-to-find bottles, will also tempt you to sacrifice the money earmarked for another day on the slopes, though the prices are refreshingly lower than you’d expect for the rare brews from folks like Avery and New Belgium.

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During the winter, it’s hard to enjoy the pub’s expansive sun deck. But come warmer weather—when tourism in Crested Butte really spikes—the establishment becomes a default après spot for the legions of mountain bikers. One local told me that you’ll find $40,000 in bikes scattered at the entrance, with everyone sling back on local beers.

Mountain biking, arguably more than skiing, sits at the heart of Crested Butte’s love of the outdoors. Its origins trace back to the 1970s when junker Schwinns and 10-speeds were Frankensteined together to maneuver through the old mining roads and singletrack surrounding the town. Biking lore has it that a handful of Aspen locals drove their motorcycles over Pearl Pass—a 22.7-mile fire road that can remained snow-covered through August separating Aspen from Crested Butte—in 1975, boasting about navigating the difficult route. Not to be outdone, Crested Butte locals conquered the same route next year—on their klunker bikes, camping in the mountains before screaming downhill into the unexpected town the next day in a kind of dirty hippy bike-obsessed middle finger parade through the rarified air of Aspen.

That contrast acts as a convenient through line to what defines both resorts today. Aspen is looking to widen their airport runways to accommodate bigger private jets, while the town of Crested Butte just banned any additional chain establishments in town. Both towns are also witnessing the wider conglomeration of the ski industry. Crested Butte Mountain is now part of Vail Corporation, which will bring a refurbished lift next season and has also inspired a fair degree of anxiety about what else might come with this new parent company—as well as the potential flood of new visitors who buy Vail’s Epic Pass. Aspen’s mountains, meanwhile, are now part of the Ikon Pass, which gives skiers and riders access to 38 different ski resorts under one pass; this year the area resorts posted a nine percent increase in visitation—in part, no doubt, because of a stellar snow year, but also likely because more people can ski there with the same pass as their local mountain.

The Disney-ifaction of Crested Butte feels unlikely, even though the town feels like it lives in a gift shop snow globe. And Aspen’s nightlife, haute cuisine and shopping, and high-end amenities would likely thrive regardless of whatever partnerships its resorts might make. But with new players, and an ever-shifting snow sports industry, change seems likely—and hopefully that won’t lead either town or resort into some anonymous homogony.

For now, both remain uniquely their own personality, ones perhaps best sampled on-mountain on skis or hiking or biking. And by taking full advantage of the stellar, distinct, easy-to-access food and beverages on offer, whether your appetites and atmosphere gravitate toward Champaign-fueled après or a choice of 30 taps.

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