If you want evidence of Colorado’s status as a destination for foodies, look at Aspen. The lap-of-luxury mountain town known for skiing, shopping and snow has cultivated one of the most prestigious food festivals in the country.
When Aspen’s Food & Wine Classic launched in 1983, it was called the Aspen/Snowmass International Wine Classic. Predating the Food Network and the term “celebrity chef,” it drew a modest 300 attendees. Today, the culinary world’s most respected names flock to the event — the 2018 edition featured more than 100 chefs, wine experts and food personalities — and it caps attendance at 5,000 to accommodate for the city’s small size. But tickets go faster than a tray of passed foie gras bites, selling out months in advance.
Aspen would seem an unlikely destination for the country’s hottest food festival. But the relaxed elegance, small-town vibe and jaw-dropping mountain scenery give Aspen a distinct Colorado flavor.
Follow Forbes Travel Guide’s culinary tour through Colorado in our four-part series. For our first leg, we visited western Colorado, where we tasted our way through one of the state’s wine regions. Now, we’ll tell you why you should visit Aspen beyond its renowned boutiques and skiing, even if you aren’t lucky enough to nab a ticket to the classic.
WHERE TO STAY
Food and drink are part of the recipe at The St. Regis Aspen Resort, which celebrates its 20th anniversary in December. Complimentary offerings include morning bloody mary tastings (summer) — The St. Regis New York lays claim to inventing the tomato juice cocktail — a sunset sabering ritual that ends with you sipping a flute of bubbly and s’mores by the fire pit.
Our favorite epicurean experience at the lavish hotel is the Boozy Buck, a free weekly cocktail lesson and tasting (the series returns in January). During our stay, we attended a session dedicated to bourbon. We sat at a communal table, where Chris Becker, director of restaurants and bars, gave a lesson that was educational yet unpretentious and fun.
Becker relayed what constitutes bourbon, how to taste it (roll it on your tongue) and interesting factoids (the name “bourbon” likely came from New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, not Kentucky’s Bourbon County).
The best part: we got a chance to taste Knob Creek, Basil Hayden’s and a 12-year-old Weller, comparing and discussing all of the pours.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
A central South Mills Street location and prime patio lure diners to Bosq. But what keeps them coming back is the eclectic menu of global fare.
The smoked salmon crackers is one of chef Barclay Dodge’s favorite dishes, and it’s easy to understand why. Topped with fish cubes, dollops of English pea cream, flowers, herbs and black chili, the crispy crackers are light and flavorful. For an entrée, try the grilled bavette steak. The succulent slices arrive artfully spread out on a wooden slab alongside watercress.
Cocktails have cheeky names like Daddy Issues Spritz and Fresh to Death. Order the S**t Fire Marg, a smoky margarita with butterfly-pea-flower-infused Suerte Blanco tequila, grapefruit, lime, spicy honey and mezcal.
An Aspen veteran since 1997, Jimmy’s is a local haunt for knockout cocktails and wine, but the American cuisine is just as worthy of your attention. The crab cake with chowchow sauce, jicama slaw, tempura shishito pepper and chipotle aioli has been a menu mainstay since Jimmy’s opening. “Honestly, we can never take it off because there would be riots,” said wine director Greg Van Wagner.
He recommends pairing the dish with the stellar Meursault Clos du Cromin from Génot-Boulanger, an up-and-coming burgundy producer.
With a name like “Meat and Cheese,” this no-reservations restaurant outright tells you what to order. The meat and cheese board rotates its selections. We amped up a creamy robiola with a smear of raspberry-jalapeño jam, and jerk pork salami had a nice kick.
Then we moved onto the chicken board. The moist rotisserie bird comes with a tarragon brown butter dipping sauce that will have you asking for refills, along with roasted potatoes and greens dressed in a zingy yuzu vinaigrette. This satisfying comfort food tastes like home.
The newest restaurant at The St. Regis Aspen, Velvet Buck takes inspiration from how the mountain men and women of the Rockies prepared their food in the 1800s — meaning you’ll get pickled vegetables and meat sizzling on an open flame.
You easily could fill up on the Colorado meat and cheese platter, accompanied by pickled cauliflower, toasted sourdough and balsamic-drizzled arugula. But save room for more. The short rib and bone marrow beef candle both qualify as meaty mountain fare, but the Muscovy duck with caramelized daikon and cipollini onions lets new executive chef Laurent Pillard show off his French pedigree.
For dessert, try the carrot cake. Filled and frosted with mascarpone, the cake roll has a pipette ready to inject extra sweetness and a scoop of vanilla “drunk” raisin ice cream comes on the side. It’s indulgent and heavy, but the mountain folk surely would approve.
The Aspen Art Museum’s wooden lattice exterior designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban stands out from the surrounding Victorian buildings. After perusing the visiting-exhibits-only space, go to the top floor for So.
The menu changes weekly, incorporating fresh local ingredients, but we’d go to the minimalist space just to enjoy a Colorado craft beer, like an Oskar Blues Old Chub Scotch Ale, and the Aspen Mountain view — it’s one of the few public rooftops in town.
Element 47 at The Little Nell is the sole Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star restaurant in Aspen, consistently impressing with its impeccable service, fine dining and well-curated wine program.
The hotel’s more casual Ajax Tavern woos you with its luscious double cheeseburger and heap of sinful truffle fries. Guests gravitate to the patio for lunch, cocktails, après-ski (it’s next to the Silver Queen Gondola) and people watching.
While this bakery built its following with its cookies, try the housemade gelato. Rich flavors fold in biscuit bits, like coconut macadamia cookies, and peanut butter cookies ’n’ cream, so you can have the best of both worlds.
WHERE TO RELAX
Slink into a plush hooded robe in The St. Regis’ subterranean Remède Spa Aspen and head to the cozy oxygen lounge. Shimmy under the furry covers and a staff member will hook you up to an oxygen tank with a nasal cannula. Breathing in pure O2 for 15 to 20 minutes is said to help your body cope with the 8,000-foot elevation. Even if you don’t suffer from altitude sickness (symptoms include nausea, shortness of breath and fatigue), the dimly lit, warm lounge will ease you into tranquility.
Follow it up with a massage from Stopher Wong. The expert therapist homed in on our problem areas and went beyond to give suggestions on how to care for them outside of the treatment room. In his hands, our knots melted like Aspen snow on a summer day.
Afterward, the steam caves, hot tubs and waterfall will call to you, but don’t miss noshing on the small bites. We couldn’t get enough of the chocolate-dipped coconut shards. Pair them with tea from Two Leaves and a Bud, a company that’s only 25 miles north of the city. Sip organic blends like Mountain High Chai and Tamayokucha green tea. Of course, even the Four-Star Aspen spa takes its food spread seriously.