Last call at 24-year Aspen watering hole Jimmys brings fans out of the woodwork

ASPEN — The crew that gathered on Saturday night to send off Jimmy’s restaurant and bar after 24 years at the heart of this storied mountain town was misfit, for sure, and also entirely fitting.

There were free thinkers and politicians (some both). There were longtime locals, seasonal and year-round regulars. The wife and grown children of composer Burt Bacharach attended, as did a high-profile criminal defense attorney who sat down to one last dinner.

A team of 20-somethings celebrated at the bar with their winning trophy that they filled with beer for the occasion. They had come from “adult field day” some hours earlier, where they raised money for the Roaring Fork Valley’s free after-school program.

And a handful of jet-setters flew in for the weekend. One ophthalmologist came out from the Bay Area as soon as he got the call from Jimmy; he’d been back here every winter “since disco.”

By the time Jimmy Yeager opened his eponymous bar and restaurant in 1997, Aspen had arrived at a crossroads.

It was no longer the “freaky” Colorado enclave made infamous by creatives like Hunter S. Thompson, nor had it reached peak celebrity mountain-retreat status, a reputation that has stuck for the last 20-plus years and counting.

“Aspen when we moved here wasn’t the Aspen that people think of fondly from the ’70s and ’80s,” said Gordon Gerson over the din of Jimmy’s Saturday night send-off. “But what it is, it’s a small town. You work here as long as we have, and you know everybody. And not everybody thinks the exact same way, but we’re all family.”

Together with his wife, Elaine, Gerson had stepped away from a private goodbye party of 15 or so revelers to talk about the lasting impact of Jimmy’s, their favorite local haunt.

They’d been coming to eat since they moved to Aspen just over 20 years ago, shortly after the restaurant’s start. During one long pandemic stretch, they even ordered takeout from Jimmy’s kitchen for 74 days.

“There was no chance we were going to let it go under,” Gerson said. “Jimmy’s just got a big heart… he cares about his staff way more than he cares about himself.”

The newest of Jimmy’s staff members had been with them for four years, according to Yeager. His longtime business partner, Jessica Lischka, started as a hostess in 2006 and by 2013 had worked her way up to co-owner.

Over the years, Yeager and Lischka say they never turned down a donation request or a youth league dinner. They’ve held parties for all manner of community events, hosted salsa dances and blues sessions.

While the pair aren’t closing Jimmy’s as a result of the pandemic, they are closing when they can still go out on a high note, they said. And when they broke the news to employees back in June, not a single person on staff left for another opportunity.

“This restaurant is the best it’s ever been today,” Yeager said. “You can’t go out any more on top.”

He looked over at Lischka. “We did it,” he said.

Yeager and Lischka sold the restaurant for an undisclosed amount to Austin-based McGuire Moorman Hospitality Group, which also owns Clark’s Oyster Bar inside the downtown space formerly occupied for 44 years by Little Annie’s.

“They gave us an opportunity to write the end of our own story,” Yeager said. “And that’s something that most restaurateurs never have the chance of doing.”

The group plans to open a Mexican restaurant in the Jimmy’s space in early 2022.

“We’re going to come to the new place because apparently the (Jimmy’s) staff is staying,” Elaine Gerson said, adding that she and her husband supported Jimmy’s over the years because of what Yeager and his team had created. “You can come and be at a place like Jimmy’s and still feel part of the local crowd.”

The local crowd on this last Saturday looked like a still-life of Aspen shifting over the past quarter-century.

Former Pitkin County sheriff Bob Braudis, who also served for 24 years before retiring locally, sat at a bar table with a group of friends and regulars, including DJ Watkins, a downtown gallery owner and filmmaker who has documented Hunter S. Thompson.

Braudis told the story of one night well after Aspen had banned smoking in restaurants (in 1985), when Thompson wanted to sit down to dinner at Jimmy’s while also smoking cigarettes.

So Yeager obliged, setting a table for six for dinner by the bar. It was around the time of a particularly heated political season, Braudis remembered, and at the end of the meal, Thompson stood up and scribbled on the wall something “outrageous and probably worth preserving.” (Later, it was accidentally painted over, according to Yeager.)

Across the table from Braudis, Jane Bacharach chatted with her daughter, Raleigh, while Oliver, Bacharach’s son, served tables on his last night of work as a Jimmy’s server.

Jane said that she had met her husband, Burt, when she was working as a ski instructor in town. And while he was based in Los Angeles, “I kind of refused to give up Aspen,” she said of her chosen hometown.

A few years after Raleigh was born, Jimmy’s opened, and the Bacharach family began their tradition of going out to the restaurant every Christmas Eve. By the time Oliver was old enough, he told his mom he wanted to live full-time in Aspen, and she knew just the place for him to find a job.

“This is our Cheers,” Bacharach said of Jimmy’s.

A group of X Games organizers convened farther back in the dining room at their favorite table (#16), which they said they planned to carry away with them (all the way back to Minnesota) for a keepsake after the restaurant shuttered.

“It’s tough when you go on the road, there’s no connection really,” X Games snowmobile organizer Joe Duncan said. “But the whole (Jimmy’s) staff treated us like we’d been here forever. When you find a place that treats you like that, you come back.”

Back they came, for about 20 years, alongside others staying for the season or year-round.

Aspen Mayor Torre (no last name, according to his driver’s license) moved to town nearly 30 years ago, and he managed the since-shuttered Howling Wolf across the street from what became Jimmy’s. While starting up his own venture, Yeager would come over to Torre’s bar, and he was “somewhat of a mentor, a compatriot, a brother in arms,” Torre explained.

Years later, Jimmy’s became an unofficial “campaign headquarters” for the Mayor. As he reminisced with his own table and the one next to him, Torre said, “We’re challenged with locally serviced establishments right now. There’s a dearth, but we’re not devoid.”

But Yeager and Lischka talk about the freedom that comes with selling a local establishment — financially, personally, professionally.

“I know a lot of our colleagues would love this opportunity,” he said, “and I don’t feel like we lucked out. I feel like we earned it.”

When they first announced they were closing, Lischka said she was asked, “What next?” and didn’t know how to answer.

“My initial answer was that I wanted to do something more meaningful; I don’t want to just serve dinner, I don’t want to just clear people’s plates, I want to do something in my life that’s more meaningful than this. And I learned very quickly through this entire end(ing) that what we’ve been doing here this entire time has been so meaningful to so many people, and I just didn’t see how meaningful it was until the end, when all of a sudden everyone was expressing what this place meant to them.”

Duncan, with X Games, put the meaning another way.

“Most people will go try other restaurants,” he said. “But at the end, they all end up back at Jimmy’s.”

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