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An Ode to the Bar Menus of Aspen Past

Illustration by PC Witte

There are two equalizers in Aspen, the mountain and the bar. For decades, ski bums and robber barons have bumped elbows on lifts and barstools, connected by the shared experience of a day shredding on the slopes and a night recounting those vertical exploits at the bar. To this day in Aspen, it doesn’t matter if you are padding around the Paepcke Suite at The Little Nell, ensconced in a Red Mountain manse, or are sleeping in your van, we are all equals in our daily descents downhill and into drunkenness.

It’s no surprise then that one of the most acutely felt casualties of Covid was the bar menu. A staple of local establishments, the bar menu was an opportunity to experience Aspen’s fine dining in a less formal fashion, sans tablecloths and time restraints. Bar menus typically included lower-priced but equally delicious fare, sometimes the best dishes were only available at the bar. Eating at the bar also offered cover for those who were out alone and for people who were just out drinking (hypothetically, they could have eaten earlier—at the bar). They were so prevalent that, “grabbing a bar menu,” became common parlance for going out to dinner.

As the pandemic spread and public-health regulations necessarily swept the globe, bar menus never stood a chance. Bars are inside, obviously, and eating at the bar is the opposite of social distancing. The voluntary intimacy of sharing a meal with strangers was the entire point. Bar menus were not targeted specifically but they disappeared nonetheless as restaurants pivoted toward takeout or closed altogether.

For locals skiing all day and working the second shift serving tourists, the bar menu was a critical part of the underground hospitality economy. You fill my glass at your bar on my nights off, and I will gladly make yours runneth over in the future at my place of work. I would venture to guess that service-industry workers mostly ate bar menus, choosing to avoid dining rooms altogether on their days off. Like affordable housing, employee-sponsored lift passes and thrifted one-pieces, bar menus were a critical part of living in Aspen on a budget. No one was surviving on bar menus alone, but their disappearance is certainly a talisman of bad things to come, like all the bumblebees dying.

Once upon a time not long ago, you could dine like royalty on king-crab fritters and a petite filet at the Cache Cache bar on a commoner’s salary. You could carb load for the following ski day on carbonara and bottomless baskets of focaccia at l’Hostaria. Gone are the days of the nightly specials at Jimmy’s where meatloaf, a Mad Dog Ranch Salad or prime rib were under 20 bucks, leaving plenty of cash for spicy margaritas. We’ve said arrivederci to Ellina’s perfectly crisped chicken milanese that was only available at the very social u-shaped bar, and au revoir to the $32 two-course prix-fixe at Piñons.

This is in no way an indictment of the restaurateurs that have done everything in their power to survive and continue to serve Aspen. This is a clenched-fist rant against the cruel, cruel world that has deprived us of one of Aspen’s greatest pleasures. Messing with our affordable snacks was a step too far. A lone holdout remains at Steakhouse 316 where the Bistro Steak remains one of the best deals in town—but hopefully, we find our way back to bountiful bar menus in the near future. We’re living through a global pandemic after all, we could certainly use a drink.

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