Aspen is not the place to start a restaurant. The rents are stratospheric, the supply chain is tortured, the shoulder seasons are murder, the labor force is distracted and the clientele can be — err — difficult. Those were the words of a former restaurant owner who will remain nameless, who, back in 2002, upon my arrival in Aspen as the city’s new finance director, regaled me with his version of the uniquely local challenges attendant to his chosen profession.
That same year, another source provided a vital piece of intel on the viability of Aspen restaurants in the early years of the 21st century. Unless they cater to locals, they don’t tend to last very long. Looking back, such observations and advice seem obvious. Of course, it’s hard to run a successful restaurant in Aspen. It’s hard to run a successful restaurant anywhere, and Aspen is likely harder than most places. But if you are successful in Aspen, well then, you have something.
That was a long time ago, but by then, Jimmy’s Restaurant was already into its sixth year of operation. This Saturday, Jimmy Yeager’s crew will serve the restaurant’s final meal after an incredibly successful run of almost a quarter century in one of the most challenging hospitality environments imaginable.
Humans love to break bread together. The act of meeting in public to share a meal is a favorite ritual. Why? The inviting neutrality of a welcoming public space, with the promise of interesting or important or perhaps on occasion even substantive conversation, along with thoughtfully prepared food, all lead to a sense of belonging. And belonging is a universal human impulse.
Back in those ancient days of 2002-2004, Jimmy’s became an almost weekly family ritual. The “surf and turf” bar special became a Thursday night standard. Recognizing value (sometimes referred to as being a “cheapskate”) is in my skill set. While I don’t remember the price, the bar menu’s offering of sirloin tips and crab legs was both amazing and amazingly priced. Our family all looked forward to sitting at one of the tables in Jimmy’s bar, enjoying the sunset and having a nice, affordable meal on a Thursday night — the weekend’s unofficial start in Aspen.
Time passes and, like so many before us who couldn’t afford Aspen real estate prices, we moved to Carbondale. Our visits to Jimmy’s became less frequent, but no less enjoyable. It remained one of my favorite places and my “go-to” restaurant for business dinners and private events whenever trundling to Aspen was possible. When Jimmy announced the restaurant’s closing this past spring, I knew Sandra and I needed to make sure we enjoyed at least one more meal there, and the opportunity presented itself this past Labor Day weekend.
As we arrived and walked past our old table in the bar — the second-to-last one on the left before entering the dining room (it’s crazy what you remember about places you love) — I noticed Jimmy was there, working as usual. A quarter century doesn’t change the dedication of a successful Aspen restaurant owner. Even when the end was a mere two weeks away, Jimmy was right in the mix, making sure all was as it should be.
A bit later that evening, he stopped by our table to say hello. I reminded him of our long-ago weekly engagement in the bar and he volunteered his lament over the pricing of that surf and turf item that served as the object of my “cheapskate” affection. It was a hilariously serendipitous moment. Being acquainted over the years, and finally with the opportunity at hand, I then shared with him the moment that made his restaurant one of my favorite places.
A few months into my tenure as Aspen’s finance director in 2003, my wife Sandra’s new doctor discovered what her prior doctors had likely missed for years — that she had breast cancer. With twin daughters less than 10 years old, the existential question had barged into our lives for the first time. The afternoon of her diagnosis, somewhat shell shocked, living in a new community, with no family or friend-based support network yet established, we went in search of an early dinner, and ended up at Jimmy’s.
As I would subsequently discover, Jimmy was there as usual. He made a point on this particular evening of coming to our table in the bar, taking advantage of the neutral space his restaurant offered to introduce himself to us, one of Aspen’s most consequential restaurateurs taking time to meet two relatively new locals of little consequence. I have little memory of the long-ago conversation, but as I explained to him for the first time, 18 years later over this past Labor Day weekend, when that conversation was over, my sense of belonging was just a bit stronger, and I felt just a little bit more at home.
It was breaking bread the way it’s meant to be, and in the form every Aspen restaurant should strive to replicate. Today, Sandra is a survivor, our daughters have grown and moved away and Jimmy’s will always live in our hearts as the place that, during a challenging time, made us feel at home in Aspen. Thank you, Jimmy, from the bottom of my heart, and good luck to you in your next endeavor, whatever that may be.