Full-service restaurants are a tricky business in Rocky Mountain ski resort towns like Aspen, Vail, Park City and the rest. Yes, they do land office business from Christmas through Easter. But the rest of the year can be a struggle. Business comes in spurts; employees leave in droves. Some chefs say that running a culinarily ambitious restaurant in a ski town is one of the biggest challenges they've ever faced. It's like opening a place from scratch every winter, because all of the help is brand-new.
But you can't beat the atmosphere of a Rocky Mountain ski lodge restaurant, where amped-up snowboarders feel comfortable rubbing shoulders with platinum-card tourists, and vice-versa. It's a vibe that travels well, too, as operators in non-mountain locales have begun to discover.
One of the toughest tickets in New York City right now is Aspen, a brand-new faux ski lodge situated on W. 22nd Street in Manhattan's Flatiron district. The ski lodge décor includes a giant copper freestanding firepit, lots of wood on the walls, a mini-aspen tree grove and a couple of Lucite deer heads that gaze serenely over the dining area. The private dining area is named for longtime Aspen resident, writer and all-purpose hell-raiser Hunter S. Thompson. The 50-seat Black Diamond lounge-trails designated "Black Diamond" are a ski area's most challenging runs-serves as the place's VIP hangout. Chef Gaby Hakman's menu winter menu includes such Aspen-esque offerings as bison sliders, blue corn dogs and, in a throwback to the ski-area food of yesteryear, fondue.
Much more sophisticated is Tucson restaurateur Sam Fox's new Montana Avenue operation in Tucson. Designed to resemble a contemporary ski lodge in, you guessed it, Aspen, the place features food from four of Fox's favorite vacation spots-Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and California. Prices are high-end casual: appetizers from $6 to $15, dinner entrees from $14 to $28. Fox defines Montana Avenue's food as upscale comfort, but it's a little more ambitious than that. Check out the menu at www.foxrestaurantconcepts.com/montana/menu.html. To us, it's one that could travel well to any part of the country.
Fox's company, Fox Restaurant Concepts, is based in Scottsdale, AZ. It operates 11 restaurants spread over seven concepts. An eighth concept, Greene House, opens soon in Scottsdale.
Darden Restaurants did a lot of research about what customers like when designing the company's Smokey Bones BBQ & Sports Bar concept. Restaurant Hospitality first wrote about Smokey Bones back in June, 2000, when the restaurant was in its test stage. Then-Darden exec Bob Mock told us that the concept was initially designed to attract a young, male customer base. If you have a sports bar that serves good barbecue, you've pretty much got that demographic covered. Why did Darden tack on a mountain ski lodge motif to the package?
The company wanted to also attract other demographic groups. Mock told us that the mountain theme allowed Darden to create an operation that seems brighter and friendlier to seniors and women, which most sports bars aren't. How well did it work? Darden had two test units of Smokey Bones going when RH did that original story. Five years later, the unit count stands at 104.
But perhaps the ultimate test of the Rocky Mountain ski lodge theme will happen soon in Missoula, MT. That's where the people who operate Blue Canyon Kitchen in Twinsburg, OH will open their second unit sometime in 2006.
Owners Bob Voelker, Val Voelker and executive chef/owner Brandt Evans definitely have a big hit on their hands with their first Blue Canyon, whose 300 seats are packed nightly with both travelers from next-door neighbor Hilton Garden Inn and diners from the fast-growing southeastern suburbs of Cleveland. The design motif of the 10,000 sq. ft. log-and-stone restaurant echoes that of the great national park lodges of the Rocky Mountains and other parts of the Western U.S. Massive fireplaces, great swaths of glass and beams that rise 30 feet into the air combine to create a cathedral-like effect. If you've dined at the Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone, at El Tovar on the rim of the Grand Canyon or at Ahwahnee in Yosemite, you know what they went for at Blue Canyon.
The food, on the other hand, is a step up from what you might get at these classic lodges. Evans was a big-deal chef at Kosta's in Cleveland before he took on this project, and people wondered why a guy like him would give up that job to take one in Twinsburg.
Now they know, as his classy and contemporary menu there amplifies the rustic elegance of the building. It's destination dining all the way, even though patrons have to drive through an industrial park to get there.
Still to be determined is how well Blue Canyon will play in Missoula, where it will also be located adjacent to a Hilton Garden Inn. Big logs, massive stonework and expansive views, a novelty in Ohio, are par for the course in Missoula. But we'll bet Blue Canyon works, because the Rocky Mountain lodge theme, if paired with fine food like that put out by Evans, now looks like a theme that's at home anywhere. It's what people want, even if they're living in a place where the theme's elements naturally surround them in the first place.