A new day dawns in the legacy of a venerable Aspen drinking hole.

It’s barely 10:30 a.m. on a Monday and a cold bottle of Corona has been cracked open and placed on the bar next to a steaming mug of coffee. Technically, Woody Creek Tavern doesn’t open until 11 a.m., but Mikey and his two friends, collectively known as the Breakfast Club, are an exception. Local ranchers, their cowboy hats and dirt-crusted overalls are proof that they’ve been up working their land way before dawn.

A patron of the storied watering hotel long before his whiskers turned white, Mikey was one of many locals who harbored doubts when he learned the venerated haunt of the late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson and favorite hangout of Roaring Fork Valley ranchers had been purchased in December 2020 by Aspen restaurateurs Craig and Samantha Cordts-Pearce. Right from the start people decided we were out to ruin the place,” says Craig. “It didn’t matter how many times we said our intention was to respect the tavern’s origins. The only way to convince them was to show them.”

When the icon reopened in 2021 following a four-month renovation, Craig, an outdoorsy, ebullient South African, surprised the Breakfast Club by joining their morning drinking session and adding some bourbon to the mix. “I had a mighty hangover, but I earned their trust,” he says. And Mikey will be the first to admit the food (his go-to is the BLT) is no longer just for sopping up booze. The updated menu, which Craig describes as chef-driven dive bar cuisine, has made the tavern an actual dining destination versus a tourist attraction.

For many old timers, it’s still their favorite gathering place, just as Woody Creek residents George and Patti Stranahan intended when they first opened the tavern in 1980. Located eight miles northwest of the glitz of Aspen, the humble, unincorporated town of Woody Creek largely got its news and gossip from the postmistress. “Doris used to keep the ‘Woody Creatures’ informed,” says Carolyn Sackariason, an Aspen journalist writing a biography about George Stranahan. “When she the postmistress announced her retirement, George, a longtime community organizer in the valley, built the tavern as a place locals could get together and figure out issues of the day.”

Woody Creek Tavern regulars Aspen

The Cordst-Pearces, who have lived in Aspen for more than three decades, are the fourth owners of the establishment. Not only do they understand the responsibility of protecting the tavern’s legacy, they have a proven track record when it comes to hospitality and food. Owners of CP Restaurant Group, the couple run a mini Aspen dining empire, including the Wild Fig, CP Burger, the Monarch, and Steakhouse No. 316. They also recently purchased Aspen’s historic pub, the Red Onion, and have plans to reimagine the space and reopen by the end of the year.

At a time when it feels like big-city restaurant groups are taking over Aspen’s dining scene, Sackariason says it’s nice to have Woody Creek Tavern stay “in the family.”

As per their word, the couple honored the tavern’s past, saving every single Polaroid, bumper sticker, and news clipping that papered the walls. “We’ve had people walk in and ask, ‘what’s changed?’ and that’s the biggest compliment,” says Craig, who admits this was his toughest remodel.

Woody Creek Tavern Aspen

What loyal patrons didn’t see was that the 1940s log cabin that housed the tavern was a structural disaster. The roof was caving in, the electrical and plumbing had to be redone. Drinks were served out of a cooler and the kitchen had been cranking out 500 lunch tickets a day and didn’t even have a dishwashing station. “Every menu item came out of a can or jar and was reheated in one of seven microwaves,” says Samantha, still in disbelief.

The couple replaced the cooler with a proper bar and built a state-of-the art restaurant kitchen. CP Restaurant’s head chef, Barry Dobesh, was brought in to teach the previous cooking team how to prepare old menu dishes from scratch using quality ingredients. Staple items, like the burger, enchiladas, and chicken estofado soup, are more delicious than ever. And the couple has elevated the dinner menu with dishes such as lamb stew and a Kansas City strip steak with chimichurri, complimented by a real proper wine list with offerings ranging from Cristal to Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet.

Some loyalists roll their eyes at oysters on the half shell and Premier Cru Chablis, but Craig has an original menu from the 1980s proving that oysters and good wine were on offer. Back then, a New York strip and King crab legs cost $12.50 and another dollar got you a glass of house wine. Today, that won’t even buy you a plate of nachos. “I think Hunter would bitch about the prices,” says Sackariason, who once lived across from the whiskey-loving writer.

Aspen local Lorenzo Semple III says he doesn’t mind paying more for quality food. “The tavern was getting pretty run down to the point my wife didn’t want to eat there anymore,” he says. Now, the couple, who live two miles away, bike down regularly for burgers and enchiladas.

woody creek tavern aspen

“When I saw the some of the old bar flies sitting there on opening day, I knew it would be a success. That’s the ultimate litmus of an American roadhouse.”

The one thing Thompson most certainly would approve of is the Old Western-inspired saloon adjacent to the tavern. Opened last summer, the tin-ceilinged space feels so authentic, you half expect John Wayne to walk through the door. Craig salvaged bridles, rifles, cattle horns, and cowboy hats as décor for the barnwood walls and moved the tavern’s original ice cooler, which still works, beside the bar for nostalgia. Amidst the red-leather and leopard-print topped stools is a saddle-topped seat. Sit in the saddle and you must buy everyone at the bar a drink, explains Craig.

Other clever touches include a branding iron that can be heated up so locals can brand the wood floor with their ranch brand and an old-school, pour-yourself whiskey policy. Order from a whiskey menu organized by good, bad, and ugly (the latter being the priciest) and the bartender will place the bottle and a glass on your table with a piece of chalk so you can mark your pours – a new chapter that Thompson would surely raise a glass – or bottle — to celebrate.

Words Jen Murphy

woody creek tavern dog