Fitting for a town with multiple Type-A personalities - a refuge of the elite, a proving ground for mountain athletes and a center for arts and culture - Aspen serves up a diverse buffet of high-quality dining. It wasn't always so: After a spectacular mining boom and bust (1880-1930), the Colorado community grew around skiing, creativity and partying, along the way earning a hedonistic rap as a town where you could get anything you want. Alas, that didn't extend to cuisine. Today, with more than 70 restaurants and bars in a 30-square-block downtown, that problem is solved. While there isn't a dominant cuisine - other than expensive - the prevailing vibes are hip, relaxing and, as you gaze up at the mountains or down at the Roaring Fork River, worth every penny.
With its prime location steps from the Aspen Mountain gondola, Shlomo's Deli & Grill (shlomosaspen.com; 501 East Dean St.; 970-315-4055) could sell cut-rate food and survive just fine. Instead, owner Shlomo Ben-Hamoo, who moved to Aspen from Israel, has deli meats and cheesecake flown in from New York, makes his own bagels and stations an employee slope-side every morning with a hotbox of $10 to-go breakfast burritos, egg-and-bacon bagels and other staples for powder hounds who wouldn't think of stopping to eat. Inside, the space is bright and warm, with a front-row mountain view and tough decisions: bagel, lox and cream cheese or shakshuka, a Middle-Eastern dish of poached eggs atop a sauce of tomatoes, onions, peppers and spices? Ben-Hamoo opened his first Aspen restaurant more than 35 years ago and says the remake, which debuted 14 months ago, "is much more healthy, with lots of vegetarian and vegan stuff." If you linger into lunch, go for the house-made matzo ball soup.
The journey alone is worth a meal at the Pine Creek Cookhouse (pinecreekcookhouse.com; 12500 Castle Creek Rd.; 970-925-1044), a warm log cabin in a meadow, at 9,228 feet, cradled by the brawny Elk Mountains. An 11-mile drive up a scenic valley brings you to the Ashcroft Adventure Lodge, from where you snowshoe, cross-country ski or take a horse-drawn sleigh the final 1.3 miles to the cookhouse. Inside: A glowing fire, polished wood bar, floor-to-ceiling windows and antler chandeliers complete the Western mountain aura. Open with the Pine Creek smoked trout (farm-raised in Idaho), then hit either the patty melt (topped with wild mushrooms and caramelized onions) made with beef from actor Kurt Russell's Old Snowmass ranch or the 'shroom-and-spinach crepes. In this setting, you must have warm apple crisp for dessert, and save your regrets for fretting over why you don't live here.
Even in a town known for cool, Bosq (bosqaspen.com; 312 South Mill St.; 970-710-7299) stands out with its sleek interior featuring whitewashed gray walls made from regional beetle-kill pine and its world-traveling chef with the very Aspen name of C. Barclay Dodge. He reigns over a small (40-seat) dining room and a menu heavily reflective of his favorite overseas haunts - "I don't cook food from somewhere I haven't been," he says - and his perfectionism. Mastering Bosq's renowned Peking duck required a winter-long, 50-bird session of trial and error in Dodge's nearby apartment. His affection for strong, bold flavors is on display these days in his Mexican fare. Roll from the cold crab salad - with citrus vinaigrette, jalapeño and radish - straight into a braised short-rib taco, served in a chile-negro tortilla with fermented celery root. Much of the produce is locally grown, and while the wine list runs deep, it also carries a lot of affordable vintages, with bottles starting at $44.
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Briley is a writer based in Takoma Park, Maryland. His website is johnbriley.com.