Mountain Characters: Basalt’s Two Rivers Cafe — a fixture for 36 years
In a valley where change is constant and the population in flux, Two Rivers Cafe has been a reassuring anchor for decades on Basalt’s Midland Avenue.
While different factions argue over how to best ignite “vitality” downtown, Two Rivers owners Rick Kane and Pat Breed do it the old-fashioned way — by earning it. The lines of hungry folks that often stretch out of the dining room into the bar during breakfast are a testament that people will come downtown for a good reason.
One good reason, among many, is the eggs Benedict.
“People tell us we have the best hollandaise sauce in the valley,” Kane said.
Then there’s their unique version of huevos rancheros, smothered in red or green chili or a combo. It didn’t make the cut for the original menu in 1979, but was added a year or so later and has become a signature dish.
Breed and Kane will celebrate their 36th year in business Aug. 18. As far as they know, they are Basalt’s longest-running business operating with the same owners.
Riding into a one-horse town
Kane and Breed got sick of working in Aspen and had an opportunity to take over a, shall we say, humble establishment in Basalt in 1979. The existing restaurant was indebted to the bank. A banker gave them a small loan to take over the space and told them they had three months to sink or swim.
“This was really just a one-horse town,” Kane said. “I had always lived in Basalt. I knew it needed a great breakfast place.”
They were youngsters when it opened. Breed was 27, and Kane was 24. They were into the party scene then, so they had a crowd simply from their friends showing up to shake off a hangover with a hefty breakfast.
“We woke up to a full house of customers,” Breed said of Day 1.
They used their mobile homes for collateral to keep developing their business in the critical early years. One key to longevity was buying their space. Breed said he didn’t want to operate a business if they didn’t own their space. They approached the woman who owned most of their block and made an offer. She liked them, Breed said, because they were the only tenants paying rent. She decided to sell to them.
In 1983, they expanded to the west of their store, where Western Auto hardware store was located and they added a bar to their booming restaurant.
The Basalt Triangle
It led to a fascinating era, though one they would prefer to forget. Two Rivers was part of the Basalt Triangle with the former Midland Bar, now home of the Brick Pony, and the Fryingpan, now home of Tempranillo. “Get lost in the Triangle” was the rally cry those days.
Breed said he eventually contemplated packing heat to deal with the drug dealers who lingered in the back of the bar. Instead, they got rid of the pool tables long enough to get rid of the problem.
Two Rivers Cafe has always had a relaxed atmosphere, particularly in the dining room for breakfast and lunch. It’s everybody’s hangout — white collar, blue collar, rich and poor, liberal and conservative.
Walk in one morning and you could encounter residents debating Basalt Town Council policy at the big round table at the entrance. Around the corner stuffed into a booth will be your plumber’s staff holding a meeting. Visiting anglers dash in for a bite before hitting the water. Local retirees collect at a joiner’s table to solve the world’s problems.
The joint has always been popular for wedding receptions, memorials, fundraisers and community events. Before the embers had even cooled from a fire in a small apartment complex up the Fryingpan Valley right before Christmas a few years ago, Two Rivers Cafe staff led a clothing and toy collection for the displaced residents.
Upper valley residents are welcome at Two Rivers, though the bar and restaurant used to print T-shirts that said, “Don’t trust anybody over 6,600 feet.” It was a reference to Basalt’s elevation.
Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn learned over the years they could come in and be left alone.
Another claim to fame was being used for a drug-bust scene in “Aspen Extreme,” a 1993 film about ski buddies. Two Rivers was cast as an Aspen bar.
There’s nothing fancy about the place. It relies on providing good food at a fair price. It’s consistent, always opening at 6 a.m., and typically fast. The staff in the cramped kitchen cranks out the food. The waitresses know many of the customers and are quick with a smile.
Breed and Kane led the kitchen staff for the first 18 years. Javier Huerta worked his way up from dishwasher to cook and now rules the roost in the kitchen. He’s been with Two Rivers for 22 years.
“Our crew is probably a big part of our success,” Kane said. It’s not uncommon for employees to stay for decades. Former waitress Mary Roberts was a fixture there for 29 years. Lori Weidman retired this year after 16 years. Current employees Audrey Medina and Laila Helgevold have been there 15 and 10 years, respectively. Helgevold beams with pride when she talks about working there.
Put in on the line
Kane and Breed joke that they considered many times getting out of the business, but 2008 was no laughing matter. Their property value plummeted. The restaurant business plunged when the construction workers disappeared.
“The reason we stayed afloat is we had all the old-timers,” Breed said.
Business bounced back, and their diversity of customers has returned.
Kane and Breed said they were never big dinner guys, but Huerta has come up with an enticing dinner menu and events aimed to bring together Anglos and Latinos. They are now serving dinner Monday through Saturday. They leave no doubt that Huerta is the driving force behind the restaurant these days.
Two Rivers’ staff doesn’t create a fuss when its anniversary rolls by each year. They just keep doing what they do best.
“We put our asses on the line and just did it,” Kane said. “Thirty-six years later, look what we have — holy crap!”
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UPDATE: Both westbound lanes and one eastbound lane of Interstate 70, according to a 12:20 a.m. update from Garfield County.