The walls of Woody Creek Tavern are plastered from floor to ceiling with Polaroids, bumper stickers, news clippings, license plates, deer mounts and thousands of other colorful adornments, many of them in reference to this dive bar’s most famous patron, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.
None of that changed when this beloved Roaring Fork Valley watering hole reopened under new owners late last year, though they did make a few subtle changes to help keep the tavern’s legacy alive.
Restaurateurs Craig and Samantha Cordts-Pearce, who also own four other eateries in Aspen and one in Boulder, bought the venerable establishment in December 2020. In August 2021, after completing mostly back-of-house renovations, they officially reopened the 41-year-old tavern, located 8 miles northwest of Aspen in unincorporated Woody Creek.
The previous owners, Laura Wren and Kevin Willson, decided it was time to pass the torch during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Cordts-Pearces, who have lived in the valley since the mid-1990s, felt a sense of responsibility to keep the tavern open and ensure it stayed with local owners.
“Not only was it a business move for us, but it also felt more like a duty,” said Craig Cordts-Pearce. “It was something we had to do as local restaurateurs in town, to grab the space because so many restaurants have been gobbled up by these out-of-towners. All of these watering holes have just disappeared out of Aspen. They’re just gone. And this is the last local watering hole in the valley, and that is a huge privilege.”
The tavern, located inside a 1940s log cabin that once served as the Woody Creek general store and gas station, is dark and cozy, with thin strands of rainbow-colored string lights hanging from the pressed-tin ceiling. Its mascot is a toothy boar: One stands guard above the main entrance, and another greets visitors as they walk through the door.
It was a favorite hangout of Thompson, the irreverent, drug- and alcohol-fueled writer best known for penning “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” who moved to Woody Creek in the late 1960s. (His wife, Anita, still lives there and promotes journalism and literacy through the nonprofit Gonzo Foundation.) And even after Thompson’s death in 2005, the tavern retained its iconic status among Roaring Fork Valley residents, travelers visiting on vacation (it’s a popular stop for people cycling along the Rio Grande Trail) and Thompson fans making pilgrimages to his old stomping grounds.
So when the Cordts-Pearces closed the restaurant for nearly 100 days in 2021 for renovations, long-time tavern-goers waited anxiously to see what kind of changes the couple would make. In the end, the new owners focused primarily on behind-the-scenes updates, installing a new kitchen, plumbing and electrical systems, back bar, banquettes and wood floors.
The couple left most of the rest of the tavern — and its authentically vintage aesthetic — alone.
“There are certain sections that there’s no way I could change — people would pay to make something look as cool as some of our corners. I’m not touching that, there’s so much history there,” said Cordts-Pearce.
And, importantly, they kept every single Polaroid that hung on the walls (though they did rearrange and relocate a few). That’s a big deal, because “Woody Creatures,” as the bar lovingly calls its patrons, like to come in and reminisce about their own photos.
“I never threw one picture away, even if it was ripped,” he said. “We kept the integrity and the feel and the character, but there were just a few things that had to be updated.”
Provided by Woody Creek Tavern
The pescado zarandeado is the Saturday diner special at the Woody Creek Tavern. It includes a whole grilled fish, chiles toreados, cucumber salad and avocado cream.
Provided by Woody Creek Tavern
A new item on the menu at the Woody Creek Tavern: grilled cheese on brioche.
The new owners also refreshed the food and beverage offerings, drawing inspiration from an old 1980s menu they found stuck to the wall behind a TV. (They researched other historic iterations of the menu, too.)
The tavern still serves up long-time favorites like a burger with fries, chips and guacamole, chicken enchiladas, chicken wings and chicken estofado soup, but the Cordts-Pearces brought in new, fresh recipes.
They also added new options, including oysters on the half shell; Rocky Mountain trout with curried cauliflower rice, golden raisin, toasted almonds and apple slaw; pulled chicken kale salad; fried chicken, brioche grilled cheese; and other elevated bar foods. They also built out a robust wine list.
“I wanted it to be an American dive bar for Thompson,” Cordts-Pearce said. “I wanted to bring it back to that feel. We kept the things that people loved, but added a few others. It’s a place where people can come and feel comfortable. They can have tacos and Cristal, or have tacos and a beer — we don’t care.”
Would the outspoken and opinionated Thompson approve? Probably, as long as he could still get a beer and a couple of margaritas as fuel for writing late into the night.
Either way, Cordts-Pearce is glad to be shepherding the tavern forward for the next generation of outside-the-box writers, creatives, hellraisers and, of course, people who just want a drink and a great meal.
“We love Aspen and we love what it presents,” he said. “We just really wanted to make sure that we protected this place. It’s really cool that something like this can still be here.”