While Aspen has four major mountains that make up one of the nation’s largest ski resorts, the big action lately — and there’s been a lot of action — has been off of the slopes. This means changes that will last long after the snow melts, affecting not just skiers and snowboarders, but the many visitors who travel to the iconic mountain town all year round for its unrivaled slate of summer festivals and events, fly fishing, hiking, biking, rafting and myriad other warm-weather activities.
The biggest news is on the lodging and dining fronts. Over at family-friendly Snowmass mountain, the nondescript Silvertree hotel was just reborn as the Westin Snowmass, part of a $50 million base improvement project last year that also revived the adjacent Wildwood. The slopeside ski-in/ski-out Westin brings the brand’s signature Heavenly Bed and Bath, plus WestinWorkout gym, but most importantly, adds a new dining choice to somewhat limited Snowmass Village with the inventive and already well-received Snowmass Kitchen. Almost everything — including fresh pastas — is made from scratch, and the main attractions are intriguing and delicious appetizers like elk meatballs. The Wildwood added a hip new beer-centric bar, done in conjunction with Colorado’s beloved New Belgium brewery (Fat Tire, Sunshine Wheat), instantly a top après spot for those in the know.
In Aspen proper, the big lodging news is the rebirth of historic Hotel Jerome, the city’s oldest hotel. Just last season, the 1889 hotel was tired to the point of losing relevance, but after a five-month round-the-clock refurbishment by new manager Auberge Resorts, the transformation is a sea change — everything is better, from bedding to baths. The bland lobby has been reborn as Aspen’s cocktail lounge of choice this season, The Living Room, and the fine-dining void has been filled by Prospect (with chef Rob Zack from Snowmass’ wonderful Eight K), a popular and high-profile addition to the town’s already formidable dining scene. The change has been so dramatic that the Jerome now competes directly with the Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star The Little Nell and Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star St. Regis Aspen Resort as the tops in town.
At the same time, The Little Nell closed its iconic Montagna fine-dining eatery and opened the brighter, hipper Element 47 (silver on the periodic table; it first put Aspen on the map). But the new place has a lot of the old touches, namely a huge and well thought-out Wine Spectator Grand Award of Excellence wine list and a focus on meticulously sourced natural and local produce. When needed, it also gets the best from afar, such as Massachusetts’ famed Island Creek Oysters — the same ones Thomas Keller insists on serving at The French Laundry. The change is not in excellent-quality cuisine or first-rate service, but rather that you can eat lighter, faster and less formally. Not to be outdone, the St. Regis just added what is easily the biggest restaurant opening in Aspen’s recent history — and one of the biggest in the country. An entirely new concept, Chefs Club by FOOD & WINE is a unique collaboration between the hotel and Food & Wine magazine. Every six months, four of the magazine’s Best New Chefs create a seasonal menu of their signature dishes, complete with a wine list curated to match. Twice a year the restaurant is reborn as a new crop of chefs arrive. It features a state-of-the-art show kitchen and voyeuristic diners can eat right at the counter. Unlike anything done before, the rotating award-winning chef idea is sure to wow visiting foodies — especially when the world-famous Aspen Food & Wine Classic rolls into town this summer.
Not every new eatery is inside a hotel, though most are — Aspen just jumped on the nationwide trend toward ultra-niche restaurants when The Meatball Shack opened downtown. The casual restaurant will face stiff competition, as both the new Snowmass Kitchen and Prospect prominently feature meatballs as house specialties. But in Aspen — or anyplace — you can never have too many good meatballs.
Photos Courtesy of Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Inc, Hotel Jerome