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Classic sign of the times: eating at the bar, mezcal for breakfast

By Dave Buchanan

Brigite Bielinski of Aspen gets a Riesling tattoo from Riesling guru Paul Grieco at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic.ASPEN — Mid-evening on a recent Saturday night and the stars were just coming out after Day Two of the 31st annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen.

Fewer than half of the 10 seats at the bar at Rustique Bistro were occupied, one of them with me.

I was eating at the bar for several reasons, not the least of which is the menu is the same as that in the dining room but the prices are about a third less expensive. And in Aspen, that counts a lot.

Most restaurants offer bar-side dining, and riding mahogany ridge is often the quickest (and sometimes the only) way to get a seat without reservations, especially if you’re a single or a couple willing to sit next to, instead of across from, each other.

It’s to be expected there aren’t many dining reservations to be had in Aspen during the Food & Wine Classic, unless you want to eat at 5:30 p.m. or 10, but it’s all part of the experience and dining in Aspen can be very good, even when you’re sharing commentary with the bartender.

Restaurants generally offer bar seating because it frees a table for larger groups, it’s easier on the wait-staff and usually you’re in and out pretty quickly. Plus, sitting at the bar gives you the opportunity to share insider’s secrets with the mixologist while watching the coming and going at the front door.

Aspen is a celebrity magnet and crowd watching becomes a major pastime during the Food & Wine Classic, which each year attracts several thousand fans of great wines and talented cooking.

You might run into big-name chefs that need only one name — Mario (Batali), David (Chang), Gail (Simmons), Marcus (Samuelsson), Thomas (Keller), Jacques (Pepin, his 29th year at the Classic), José (André), Ming (Tsai) — at the Saturday farmers market or making an early morning stop at the bakery.

The list of rock star chefs is long, almost as long as the lines waiting to get into the SRO cooking demos in the two seminar rooms (each seating 400-plus) of the St. Regis Hotel, the perennial host to the Food & Wine Classic staff and its many guests.

Tickets to this year’s three-day event sold out in March, the earliest sell-out ever, reflective of the economic confidence held by high-end consumers (or maybe because they aren’t really affected by the R-word).

More than 80 seminars and demonstrations are packed into nearly every waking minute, including seven Grand Tastings under the familiar, high-peaked white tents featuring more than 300 wineries, bodegas, chateaus and other exhibitors from around the wine world. You could learn the secrets of Riesling (and maybe get a Riesling tattoo, as shown) from Mr. Riesling himself, New York City restaurateur Paul Grieco; discover the “weird and wonderful” wines from sub-regions of Spain from the vivacious sommelier and author Marnie Old; or explore the world of malbec with Mark Oldman, just to name three of the popular seminars, of which there simply are too many to attend.

Wander into the Grand Tasting and grab a glass: Don’t just wander, but pick a region, a wine, a country or a grape and go for it. Maybe you want to taste Assyrtiko, the great white wine from the island of Santorini, off the coast of Greece; a 2010 Bodegas Chacra Barda Pinot Noir from Patagonia Agentina; a Faustino 1982 Gran Reserva from Spain’s Ribera del Duero; a Pisco Maiden, made with Peru’s signature brandy; or sip an exotic 2011 tempranillo blanco from Bodegas Valdemar in Rioja.

This is your chance to explore, to be daring.

“I like this one for breakfast,” laughed mezcalero Gustavo Ibas from Oaxaco, Mex., as we shared a sip or two of the Banhez Reposado mezcal and Ibas also shared a saying about mezcal: “Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también,” which translates to “For everything bad, mezcal, and for everything good also.”

At the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, everything is good.


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