Kurt Wigger closes the door on a valley landmark
Post Independent Staff
When Kurt Wigger announced a few months ago that he was closing the Sopris Restaurant, there were some pretty disgruntled people.
“They say, ‘You cannot do this to us. Where will we go?'” Wigger said.
But for Wigger, who has operated the Sopris for 29 years, it’s a relief. Now instead of dividing his time between Sopris and his second restaurant, Buffalo Valley, he’ll have only one place to manage.
Wigger sold his one-acre Sopris property to the developers of the Bair Chase golf course and housing development for $1.35 million. He is slated to close on the deal Aug. 16.
The last sit-down dinner at the Sopris is set for Aug. 30 ” and it is sold-out. Wigger will host a cocktail party farewell on Aug. 31 ” $20 at the door ” beginning at 4 p.m.
A little bit of the old Sopris will move over to the Buff, including the black leather booths, the stained-glass pictures, the light fixtures and, of course, some of the menu offerings, notably the escargot and steak specialties.
Wigger came to Glenwood Springs from the Red Onion, a fixture in the Aspen scene for many years. But his path began in Lucerne, Switzerland.
“I grew up in the family restaurant, the Big Woods,” Wigger said.
He went to chef school in Zurich, and after six months in the Swiss army, landed a job at the Palace Hotel in St. Mortiz, Switzerland.
“At that time it was the best hotel in the world,” Wigger said. But fate caught up with him in 1961. The owner of the Red Onion, who was visiting a buddy, the owner of the Palace, asked Wigger if he’d like to come to Aspen to work.
“I said, ‘Oh, yeah, sure, but I don’t have any money.'”
The man offered to buy him a ticket. Not wanting to miss a golden opportunity, Wigger accepted and landed in New York with $30 in his pocket.
His luck continued to run strong. On his first day in Aspen, he met Elspeth, a Swiss girl from Bern, who worked at Guido’s. The two married in Aspen on Dec. 22, 1964.
Soon Susie and Kathy came along. Now there’s a third generation, with Sepp, Julia and Nicolas, the Wiggers’ grandchildren.
After four years at the Red Onion, he figured it was time to get a piece of the action in the busy restaurant. “I said I wanted to be a partner, or I would move on,” Wigger said.
After being turned down, Wigger and Elspeth packed up and went to Molokai, Hawaii, where he managed a hotel for a year. After a year, he returned to the Red Onion, where he was offered a partnership.
In those days, Aspen was really a seasonal town ” with genuine off-seasons.
“The Red Onion served 1,000 meals during the winter and 20 in the off-season,” Wigger said.
The town was also still a little rough around the edges in those days. Wigger told of watching one restaurant worker stab another to death in a dispute over moving some boxes. One day Wigger asked after a new hire and was told he hadn’t shown up. He went upstairs to the man’s room and found him dead in his bed of an apparent heart attack. He also learned the man was wanted for bank robbery.
Wigger remembers a longtime patron, John Deutschendorf, who told Wigger one day, “This song has to make it for me, or I’ll just have to write music.” The song was “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and the man, John Denver. Denver, Wigger said, was playing the Red Onion in the afternoons for $20 and a free meal.
In 1974, Wigger bought what was then called Joe’s Other Place, a restaurant on Highway 82 south of Glenwood Springs. Wigger operated it as the Red Onion for four years. Then, in 1978, the Red Onion in Aspen sold and the new owners asked Wigger to change the name of his place. Thus began the Sopris.
On top of the continental food, Wigger also brought in an old friend from Aspen, jazzman Walt Smith. Smith and assorted musicians have played every Tuesday night for 20 years. They’ll now switch over to the Buff and continue the tradition.
Jazz fan Connie McCrudden applauds the move.
“This is the only place in the valley where you can hear straight-ahead jazz,” she said. “It’s just good that it’s being carried on to the Buffalo Valley.”
Jazz fans will also be pleased to hear there’ll be plenty of room for dancing at the Buff.
For Wigger, giving up the Sopris has brought happy memories and new ones to look forward to.
“Looking back, it’s been hard work, but I’m so proud and touched” by the people who have become friends and wished him well in his new direction.
Contact Donna Gray: 945-8515, ext. 510
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