How to Navigate Fine Dining as a Family in Aspen

How to Navigate Fine Dining as a Family in Aspen

This chic ski town has a surprising array of family-friendly restaurants, even at the highest levels

Famously popular with celebrities, CEOs, and the rich and famous of all sorts, Aspen has one of the most upscale fine dining scenes of any ski destination in North America. The town even hosts the Aspen Food & Wine Classic, one of the world’s premier culinary festivals, each summer. But with one of the best mountains for learning to ski (Buttermilk), and skiing’s finest dedicated, supervised children’s facility (the three-story, 25,000 square foot Treehouse at Snowmass), Aspen also has a ton of family appeal. At first glance, the town’s posh epicurean scene can be off-putting to families, but there is actually a surprisingly broad array of family-friendly dining here, even at the highest levels.

“Many Aspen locals take their kids out to restaurants from a young age, just as people coming here on vacation do,” says Maureen Poschman, a longtime local and avid foodie. “As a rule, Aspen restaurants are pretty family friendly.” Here are some of the best restaurants in Aspen for high-quality family dining.

It’s a Yellow Tail Jalapeño kind of evening

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Matsuhisa: Sister to the L.A. flagship of legendary Japanese-Peruvian chef Nobu Matsuhisa, who helped usher in the entire fusion cuisine movement and gave us oft-imitated signature dishes such as miso-glazed black cod and rock shrimp tempura. The food is some of the most beloved upscale Japanese in the world, but remains warm and welcoming with a mom and pop feel, in an otherwise unremarkable single-family Victorian house downtown. Rapper Kanye West even referenced the lack of pretense in one of his songs, noting that he “might walk in Nobu with no shoes.” The Aspen restaurant has some big tables, is popular with big families, and especially since kids today seem to have a bottomless appetite for sushi, between the excellent sushi bar menu and the featured entrees, there’s something for everyone.

Matsuhisa is two restaurants in one, with a more formal full-on dining experience downstairs, and a casual lounge, beloved by locals, upstairs. It doesn’t take reservations, but many families prefer the laid-back upstairs atmosphere, with flat-screen TVs showing sports or ski flicks, and more casual menu options.

L’Hostaria: This top-shelf Italian restaurant specializes in the authentic cuisine of Northern Italy (risotto, veal Milanese, carpaccio) and has lots of big tables and banquettes that lend themselves to groups and families. In Italy, kids are beloved in restaurants, and this aspect of the culture is not lost in translation in Colorado, where L’Hostaria puts on a warm welcome. Owner and chef Tiziano Gortan has two young daughters himself, so he gets it, and he grew up in Italy where he attended culinary school and worked in a string of one, two and three-starred Michelin restaurants before relocating to Aspen and opening this locally prized spot more than a decade ago.

The menu is broad, with kid-friendly staples such as burrata, fried calamari, homemade pasta and decadent charcuterie and antipasti platters, but also has more rarefied options such as porcini crusted whole branzino and the signature house risotto with homemade veal stock and truffle butter. Oenophiles will be thrilled by one of Aspen’s best wine lists, with an emphasis on Italy of course, including a very deep selection of Super Tuscans.

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Pine Creek Cookhouse: This longtime favorite captures the feel of a ski vacation destination—nothing says kid-friendly like arriving by horse-drawn-sleigh! You can also get here under your own power on cross-country skis, perfect for any family that does this sport together.  Skiing or sledding to dinner at a restaurant in the woods is magical, but Pine Creek also delivers on the food front, with an odd mix of classic Colorado cuisine (think rainbow trout, rack of local lamb, elk chops) alongside a handful of Nepalese specialties, such as bison momos (traditional Nepalese dumplings). The fusion stems from the fact that they generally have a Sherpa working in the kitchen.

Dinner here is always a four-course menu with lots of choices, culminating in decadent desserts (pretzel bread pudding, apple crisp) and there is also a more traditional children’s menu with picks like macaroni & cheese and a cheeseburger—made with locally raised grass fed natural beef, of course. Pine Creek is also open for lunch, with similarly enticing food and more casual choices, such as soups and sandwiches. There are more than 20 miles of groomed Nordic trails around the property, and cross-country ski gear can be rented here, so opt for lunch and some skiing, a great family change of pace from the downhill runs.

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Steakhouse 316: Classic, upscale, big city steakhouse offerings have come to Aspen with excellent quality USDA Prime beef and all the best cuts. Like the Chicago, Dallas and New York legends that inspired it, the menu at Steakhouse 316 also boasts plenty of first-rate seafood, a raw bar, and all the traditional steakhouse sides and starters, from lobster mac & cheese and creamed spinach to hand-cut fries and thick onion rings. The broad, family-friendly menu will please every taste, and the owners, who also run popular Aspen eateries Wild Fig, Monarch, and CP Burger, had kids just as they started their restaurant group, so they know what it’s like to dine out as a family.

Element 47: The signature fine dining restaurant in the 5-Star Little Nell luxury hotel is always ranked one of Aspen’s finest, with an award-winning wine list and impeccable service. It was the first and only restaurant in Aspen to earn a Forbes 5-Star rating, the highest possible. but because it is in hotel regularly frequented by families from around the world, it often welcomes children and staff will happily cater to any special requests.

Element 47 specifically bills itself as “casual fine dining”, and takes pride in not having a dress code. Also, tables are spread out further from each other than in most spots in a town with famously high real estate prices, which makes families with younger kids feel more comfortable. A constantly changing seasonally inspired menu is based on close collaborations between the chefs and Colorado ranchers and farmers, with locally sourced fruits and vegetables, and all hormone-free meats including Wagyu beef locally raised at Emma Farms and natural pork from Niman Ranch, along with cage-free all-natural eggs, and local dairy products. In short, it’s the kind of food you can feel good about your children eating. And unlike most fine dining restaurants, it is also open (and excellent) for breakfast and lunch.

Ajax Tavern, also in the hotel, still offers fine dining with many of the same featured purveyors but has many more kid-friendly choices like burgers, schnitzel and French onion soup, and a more relaxed tavern-like atmosphere some parents prefer for family nights. 

Meat & Cheese: Straddling the border between fine dining and casual eaterie, this spot looks humble but over-delivers on quality with excellent farm-to-table cuisine with a heavy focus on quality ingredients and purveyors. The owner of Meat & Cheese knows a thing or two about the topics, as until recently she ran her own goat farm and owned Colorado’s Avalanche Goat Cheese company. Her menu features great cheeses and charcuterie meats, locally sourced vegetables, classic roast chicken from local all-natural purveyors, and other inventive dishes with Asian influences.

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Header image: c/o The Little Nell