My family and I have been coming to Aspen for a long time. Let’s say several years before the Silver Queen Gondola opened in 1986, but several years after Little Annie’s Eating House opened in 1972. Long enough to know the significance of both.
Just typing Little Annie’s evokes sadness: some restaurants are part of the fabric of one’s life, italicizing a period of time that was meaningful. It’s no surprise restaurants come and go, especially in Aspen, but despite financial struggles Little Annie’s survived when others didn’t, which is why I was taken aback by its closure in April 2016. For me, it felt like the town had lost an important anchor, taking part of its character with it.
Little Annie’s was a haven for locals and visitors alike, a place where both parents and their kids could have a good time. Diners in the restaurant or at the bar were “family,” as was the staff, who not only remembered who you were but what you liked to eat. On a cold winter’s eve Little Annie’s food tasted like manna from heaven. It was satisfying and there was plenty of it, no reductions of this or that. No reductions period. The only “smears” on your plate were the accidental variety: yellow mustard, brown BBQ sauce or red ketchup. The occasional throwing of a chicken finger or two or a chunky fry at your younger sibling was often ignored. Just like home.
The menu “Favorites” included huge sandwiches such as marinated grilled chicken with cheese, green chili and a dollop of mayo on a Kaiser roll. My favorite was Ruby Red Trout served with savory rice and maybe broccoli, but whatever you had to eat, be it Prime Rib, burgers, chili, stew, lasagna, or their famous BBQ pork ribs with “Add-Ons” such as onion rings and mashed potatoes, it was all good American food. Desserts were typically caloric too, like Chocolate Avalanche Brownie Sundae!
At least once a week, after a day on the slopes, we’d head out for dinner at Little Annie’s with cheeks still glowing, fatigue settling into our bones, and a healthy appetite. It wasn’t called an “Eating House” for nothing! My kids are grown now, so with the passage of time we went there less often, but when I heard a new restaurant would replace Little Annie’s, I knew I wasn’t going to like it. Not one bit!
So much for fidelity…Clark’s Oyster Bar, which opened in June 2018, is now my favorite restaurant in Aspen; it sits where Little Annie’s used to be. When I say favorite, I have a favorite for one reason or another every time we go out, but Clark’s is consistently good, though it doesn’t look at all like Little Annie’s. Instead of being cozy and cavernous, Clark’s is light and bright enhanced by a large skylight, and an air of Nantucket chic. The casually, sophisticated atmosphere is punctuated by a black and white image of Jackie O on the menu, not the kind of place where children have a hissy fit, tired out after a long day. Still, when I stand by the front desk and squint my eyes, the hominess of Little Annie’s dining room with its red and white-checkered tablecloths appears mirage-like, and I feel a little misty-eyed.
There are some similarities. Clark’s has retained the same footprint, with wood beams on the ceiling. The long bar is spiffed up and remains along the wall on the left as you enter. Now it’s deemed an “Oyster Bar” that’s a plus for me; I’m so wild about oysters I sometimes have them for dessert. Although I‘m mad about lobster rolls too, I often choose the mussels instead, because they come with clams, which is Nirvana to me! And how can you not order a tower of shoestring fries to go with the mussels as well as dip the large crusty, grilled sourdough bread in the white wine and herbed broth. The broth by the way is divine and so plentiful, there’s always some left to take home.
After a cocktail—a Clark’s Crush, along with some other tasty bread served with condiments and salty radishes, I ordered a half dozen of some West and East Coast oysters: Kumamoto and Sex on the Bay. (Oddly), I preferred the former! And along with the generous portion of mussels, I had a glass of Sancerre followed by an espresso. But if I’d had room for dessert I might have tried the Basque Cake, a subliminal reminder, perhaps, of Little Annie’s popular Bundt Cake.
As we are leaving, I walk to the back of the restaurant to ogle the tiers of freshly baked breads. I spot Chef Josh and ask if I may take his photo. He removes his mask with a smile revealing his handsome face. I recall a server at another restaurant mentioning how she is frequently disappointed when a mask is removed. What strange Covid-19 times we live in, where the eyes have it! I pause at the bar to gaze at the list of oysters wishing I could try every one! Further down near the entrance is Clark’s homage to its predecessor—an array of memorabilia on the wall. I’m sure fans of Little Annie’s appreciate it.
Walking out the front door into the sunshine, there are tables outside which is new. Not new is the wooden cabin-like frontage with window frames painted a nautical blue instead of red. It brings to mind a poignant sign on the door of Little Annie’s that said “Closed Forever Thanks”; it is heartening to see the building looks so similar to the original, a tribute to the former restaurant, its owners, and staff who worked there.
Little Annie’s had broad appeal, serving up a feeling of connectedness, comfort food, and as they say in Ireland—good craic. Beloved institutions are irreplaceable, but it’s a relief to know the baton has been placed in the good hands of Clark’s Oyster Bar. I hope Little Annie’s successor will be around for a long time.
CONTRIBUTING WRITER: Annette Gallagher Weisman is a freelance writer who has been coming to Aspen for a long time. An award-winning essayist, she writes about food, wine, books, and travel. Annette has been published in several national and regional publications including People, TheWineBuzz, and EdibleAspen. In her spare time, Annette is an avid reader, cook, and tennis player, and was once told by an Aspen ski instructor “You don’t ski badly for an Irish person.”