Not even a global pandemic could stop Aspen’s Alia Joonas from realizing her dream of owning her own restaurant.
In theory, Joonas achieved this in February when she and her partner in business and in life, Bridger Smith, opened the doors to the beloved Bear Den.
But a casual bakery and café was only part one of Joonas’ business plan, which she has developed and refined for more than a decade. Part two of Joonas’ long-term vision is a restaurant and wine bar as the perfect complement to the café.
With her eponymous Joonas, Wine & Tapas restaurant set to open this fall below Bear Den, the 28-year-old is bringing her plan to fruition.
“It was always supposed to be two concepts that went together, and the idea is that if you’re making everything from scratch — the breads, pastries, all of that — it’s expensive, so the wine bar is to balance that out,” Joonas said from the new space Thursday afternoon. “And both concepts really help each other.”
While Bear Den boasts a medley of homemade goods, salads, sandwiches and personal recipes from Joonas’ childhood, the downstairs concept will draw inspiration from Northern Spain’s Basque region and feature an extensive selection of wine, tequila and mezcal. Topping the menu are tapas, or pintxos, such as toasted polenta with tomato tapenade, cider-braised Spanish chorizo, bèchamel croquettes and anchovy crème-stuffed Manzanilla olives.
In an untraditional twist, the restaurant’s bar menu will offer a mélange of Indian dishes — an homage to Joonas’ upbringing in the Indian Ocean island nation, Mauritius.
Joonas believes these culinary additions will be well-received, at least in part because Aspen lacks cultural cuisine. A hospitality school graduate and aspiring chef, Joonas’ eye for detail — both with the menu and the interior — also will help to position the restaurant for success.
What’s less likely is that Aspenites will recognize any semblance of the 3,500-square-foot space that most recently housed the Cooking School of Aspen, and for years prior, the Steak Pit.
Joonas said she was largely inspired by a memorable Mexico City bar in which she felt like she had walked into a local’s personal kitchen. She and Smith sought to create a similarly inviting, home-like feel.
“We thought, this is a really big space, how do we make it feel cozy?” Joonas said. “There’s something cool about coming underground, too, so people could walk from one room into another, and there’s the staircase, fireplace. All of this came based off of the idea that we wanted it to feel like a home.”
Smith, with a background in construction and design, considered every square inch of the space from start to finish, Joonas said. Her brother, Hyder Joonas, also played a pivotal role in the build out as project manager.
“A lot of this [furniture] is actually from our house,” Joonas quipped, “so if you go to our house, we have no more furniture.”
With touches of modern and antique design, the ambience is cool and quaint, yet also eccentric and unique: A dimly lit, 24-foot-long, custom-made stainless steel fixture that mirrors the constellations of the Southern Hemisphere brightens the lounge area. Antique glass windows and brick from the iconic and historic Crystal Palace adorn the walls.
A fireplace is sandwiched between a grand staircase that leads to nowhere and an antique wine cabinet. A clear, glass dumbwaiter adjacent to the bar transports every coffee, cocktail and dish to the upper level.
“Every single detail in this place has been thought of,” Joonas said. In fact, there was a point pre-pandemic in which she and Smith brought tape measures with them to every restaurant they visited outside of Aspen, in an effort to feel out and better understand what they liked and didn’t like with regard to height, distance and overall comfort from table to chair, table to patron, etc.
“We’re definitely crazy,” Joonas said with a laugh.
Outside of a few private events, Joonas, Wine & Tapas will open softly at the end of October and to the public by mid-November. While Joonas hoped to open the wine bar this summer, she said the snug, subterranean space lends itself better to winter anyway. Joonas and Smith also looked to the restaurants’ 40 employees this summer to help gut and build out the space as a way to keep the staff whole amid an unprecedented season.
In a true family affair of sorts, the barista painted the walls, the dishwasher sealed the soapstone on the dumbwaiter and the breakfast waitress sewed the curtains.
“It’s actually been really fun, and everyone has been all hands on deck,” Joonas said. “Our staff is really close, which makes it feel more special.”