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Best Aspen Restaurants

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Aspen is not the kind of mountain resort town where eating starts with dragging grocery bags to a condo. Here, most visitors stay in hotels and dine out in restaurants. Given Aspen's upscale clientele, menus tend to be skewed toward upper price levels, but moderate and budget eateries are certainly available. Just don't plan on killing hunger pangs at a fast food joint, unless you like Big Macs. The only precooked burger chain in town is McDonald’s.   There are a few ways to eat well for less in Aspen. One is to look for restaurants that offer prix fixe menus where chefs offer a preset, multi-course collection of items at a preset, usually somewhat discounted price. In Aspen, you'll find this more commonly available in the slower seasons. Another way to sample the best for less is to order dinner from the bar menu, which typically offer the same or similar food items at a much lower price than what's charged in the dining room. Bar sections may not be as quiet or romantic, but drink refills come quickly, and if you're traveling alone, you avoid sitting solo. Perhaps the best way to eat more cheaply, especially during ski season, is to dine during apres ski happy hours. Many of Aspen's restaurant-bars offer food and drink specials designed to lure in patrons fresh from the slopes. In Aspen, dinner dress is casual, albeit still fashionable, pretty much everywhere with coats and ties seldom seen. Most folks dine between 6PM and 8PM. Top of the line places require reservations, but they seldom need to be made more than a day or two in advance. In the past, Aspen was noted for snooty service, but that doesn't occur as much anymore.

Cache Cache Bistro

Neighborhood: Dowtown Price: Expensive
If your idea of a great restaurant experience involves savoring something French, Cache Cache is Aspen's place to go. The dining room displays a modern, bright and cheery look, and the lighting turns soft and romantic after dark. The restaurant offers a separate lounge area where in the Aspen tradition, the menu offers similar items and more at lower prices then what's found in the dining room. Check out the trout dinner available only in the bar. As to be expected, the wine list is extensive with bottles starting in the $30s and shooting upward form there. In the main dining room, the White Marble Farms pork tenderloin is an entree of choice.

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Jimmy's

Neighborhood: Downtown Price: Expensive
Jimmy's is a fun and lively spot that can be a little noisy if you're looking for a romantic dinner venue. Sound levels escalate when the live salsa D.J. music begins on Saturday night at 11PM, but by then, you should be done dining anyway. The decor and atmosphere has a modern, city feel to it. On the drink front, they offer the best margarita in town. For food, we recommend that you order the crab cakes, which can be found at about half-price on the bar menu. For an entrée, the basil encrusted Colorado lamb loin is fantastic.

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Big Wrap

Neighborhood: Downtown Price: Budget
This place is a favorite with locals. Not long ago, the local paper declared it the winner in the Best Cheap Eats category. As the name suggests, their specialty is wraps, although they do also offer salads, soups, tacos, smoothies and breakfast burritos. While it is primarily a lunch stop, they do stay open until 6PM, so if you're willing to grab dinner early, it's a place to go. Try their Pesto Wrapture, which contains grilled chicken, rice, salsa, black beans and roasted poblano cilantro pesto wrapped in a flour tortilla. Indoor seating is extremely limited, so plan on take-out.

Zane's Tavern

Neighborhood: Downtown Price: Budget
This is a great little locals bar. Hit it for winter apres ski or summer happy hours when the beer flows cheap and the wings come priced individually. If you are into sports, there are a half-dozen TVs scattered around. While Zane's offers the usual array of bar burgers, what they may best be known for are their Philly cheese steak sandwiches. Granted, these Rocky Mountain versions may not hold up to Pat's or Geno's Philadelphia bests, but if you consider you're thousands of miles to the west and 7,800 feet higher than the City of Brotherly Love, they may be the next best thing.

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520 Grill

Neighborhood: Downtown Price: Budget
Be glad Aspen doesn't support the usual rash of high-volume, chain burger joints. That leaves room for places like the 520 Grill, which serves up juicy, custom-made, cooked-to-order half-pounders. And if beef is not your thing, they have turkey and bison burgers available, too. In fact, if you haven't had a burger made from buffalo, this is the place to try one. Ounce for ounce, bison carries less fat, less cholesterol, more iron, more vitamin B12 and fewer calories than even select beef. Think of it as health food. There's also an assortment of salads and sandwiches on the menu. Seating inside or in their small courtyard is tight, so either avoid prime times or be prepared to stand.

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Woody Creek Tavern

Neighborhood: Woody Creek Price: Moderate
Located a few miles down valley from downtown, the Woody Creek Tavern is an Aspen classic. Local history in the form of photos, drawings, posters, signs and license plates absolutely cover its wooden walls. If the weather is nice, there are outside tables for your alfresco dining pleasure. For local Aspenites or visitors pedaling two wheels, it's a great place to bike to for a burger and a beer. If you're really good at identifying celebrities, you might even find a few here. While the beef is good, their chicken enchiladas and fish tacos are even better. Wash either down with a margarita made with fresh-squeezed limes. Reservations for eight or more.

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Ajax Tavern

Neighborhood: Downtown Price: Moderate
Located off Gondola Plaza at the corner of the Little Nell, the Ajax Tavern is an Aspen classic. It offers an upscale bar atmosphere inside, and outside there is a slope-view deck with overhead heaters for cooler times. Their Ajax Double Cheeseburger made from grass fed beef may be one of the best ski area burgers around. If you're really hungry, order a bowl of their onion soup gratinee to go with your burger and share a plate of truffle fries with the table. Beware. If you stop here for a ski lunch, you may be too stuffed to get back on the gondola.

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Bad Billy's

Neighborhood: Downtown Price: Budget
Formerly the Cooper Street Pier, Bad Billy's is a lounge that serves up some pretty decent food. It has the usual sort of bar accoutrements such as large screen TVs, pool tables, games and music. If you're willing to cheer for the Rockies, Broncos, Avalanche or Nuggets, or don't mind sharing space with those who do, come here and watch the game. For a great eating treat, do as the locals do and order a trio of Bodhi's tuna tacos with a side salad.

J-Bar

Neighborhood: Downtown Price: Moderate
Located in Hotel Jerome, this little watering hole sports a long history. It helped quench the thirst of Aspen's early miners. When Prohibition turned off the draught spigots, it became a soda shop whose most popular drink was a milkshake laced with under-the-counter bourbon. Known as an Aspen Crud, it's back on the menu today. In the 1970s, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson used to frequent the J-Bar, and his campaign poster for sheriff still graces the wall. It's not as much of a locals hangout as it once was, but it's still a worth a visit for lunch or dinner. While they serve up good salads and sandwiches, if you're into beef, you really should order one of their design-it-yourself, all-natural burgers. It starts with a half-pound of meat, and you pick from a list of extra-cost toppings that range from seven different cheeses to roasted poblano chilis and fried organic eggs. No reservations are taken here.

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Montagna

Neighborhood: Downtown Price: Expensive
Located in the Little Nell, Montagna is arguably the top restaurant in Aspen. The cuisine is called "Rocky Mountain Artisan," and many of Chef Ryan Hardy's fresh, organic ingredients come from his own 15-acre farm down valley. Take a peek at the wine list even if you don't plan to order a bottle. It runs pages long and features vintages that go at four- and even five-figure prices. If you want the best deal, order the cheapest bottle on the menu. It's excellent and marked up the least. The setting offers a light wood, semiformal feel that seems appropriate for the price level. Dinners consist of a three-course prix fixe menu (around $68—not cheap) with sides and appetizers for the table extra. We recommend starting with the chicken liver pate with house-made fruit preserves and crostini. After that, anything goes well. Make reservations a day or two in advance during high season.

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