GOLD HILL — In an evolving restaurant industry increasingly driven by smaller appetites and shorter attention spans, brothers Brian and Chris Finn would seem to be doing everything wrong with their hearty six-course meals and relaxed pace.
But their fiercely loyal customers at the 56-year-old Gold Hill Inn love them for it.
While owning a building seems like something every successful business should do, that’s not always the case. For many companies, it makes more sense to continue leasing space, freeing up time and capital that can be better utilized in other ways.
“Sometimes you feel like a dinosaur doing it, but we’ve got our own little niche here — the building, the town, the mountains, the whole atmosphere,” said Brian Finn. “I think that’s why we’ve survived — because there’s not many doing it.”
Not that long ago, the foothills near Boulder were sprinkled with gourmet-quality inns run by transplanted Europeans who stayed because they felt at home in the hills. What now is Colorado Cherry Co. in Pinewood Springs was once La Chaumiere, where diners enjoying Heinz and Elisabeth Fricker’s five-course French feasts could watch the fallow deer that roamed the backyard. Hermann and Mieke Groicher served comfortable Continental cuisine for 39 years at Fawn Brook Inn in Allenspark before the cozy cabin in its Christmas-card setting closed last year. Gone too are Chris and Heidi Mueller’s Red Lion Inn in Boulder Canyon, the Smetana family’s Praha — originally Old Prague Inn — in Hygiene, and two German-themed restaurants in Lyons: Hans and Annalies Wyppler’s Black Bear Inn and Andrea’s Homestead Café, run for 33 years by Andrea Liermann.
But Gold Hill Inn — with little advertising other than enthusiastic word of mouth — remains much as it was when the Finns’ parents, East Coast transplants Frank and Barbara Finn, opened the place in 1962. The tables, chairs and silverware still don’t match. All the servers might wait on you at some point in your meal, and — just like always — they reflect the youth, laid-back funk and culture of Boulder. On a recent visit, one lithe woman moved about the room with the poise and grace of the dancer she is, while another waiter chatted with customers about his friend named Rainbow who makes and markets her own granola.
The challenges also remain the same, however, Brian Finn said, starting with the location.
The tiny town of Gold Hill, founded by prospectors in 1859, is 10 miles from Boulder, more than 3,000 feet higher and more than a century back in time. Getting there from the Front Range urban corridor requires negotiating one of three twisty, often steep and partly unpaved mountain roads. The remote and snowy high-country location and the cost of heating mean the restaurant can be open just five days a week from May through October and only on weekends in November and December.
But for the Finns and their fans, that’s the flavor, the fun and the reward.
Crest that final hill on Sunshine Canyon Road before dropping into the village, and the Continental Divide is spread out before you in snow-specked grandeur. Stand outside the 94-year-old log building after dinner and revel in the lack of city lights and noise.
That aesthetic drew the elder Finns all those years ago, and holds their sons today.
“Mom and Dad really didn’t have a background in food. Dad was a social worker and Mom was a chemist,” Brian Finn said. “But the bibles in their house were Gourmet magazine and ‘The Joy of Cooking.’ Mom liked to change the recipes around quite a bit.
“They just wanted to get out of the city and head west,” he said. “Mom had a sister in Boulder. They stopped to visit her and kind of fell in love with the area. They lived in Boulder for a while, and Dad worked as a postman. One day they answered an ad to be winter caretakers for what was then the Trojan Ranch, a quarter mile west of Gold Hill; it’s now Colorado Mountain Ranch. That winter was harrowing for them, and they’d never seen a potbellied stove in their life. They learned all about the mountains real quick. When the ranch reopened in the spring, they moved down into Gold Hill and opened a little store.”
Two adjoining log buildings sat empty, including a three-story structure that had opened in 1872 as the Wentworth Hotel and in 1920 became the Bluebird Lodge. The adjoining wood-beamed dining hall had been added in 1924. “Mom was given a tour of those buildings and fell in love,” Brian Finn said. “Our parents bought the property for $12,000 — but then said, ‘OK, now what do we do with it?’ They decided to open a restaurant serving those six-course meals; it’s called ‘table d’hote’ or ‘table of the house.’ They opened Gold Hill Inn on my third birthday.”
Business took off rapidly as the word spread among Boulder’s academic and fledgling technology communities, Brian Finn said.
“Those people immediately found the restaurant and loved it because they could bring out-of-state people in. That’s what got it rolling right away.”
Brian and Chris were put to work in the kitchen early on, and — just like Frank and Barbara — had no formal culinary training. “We both learned under our parents,” Brian Finn said. “No cooking school.”
The menu changes nightly, but some dishes are originals, such as the broiled, smoked, stuffed trout, tournedos of beef in a hunter sauce, and a lamb dish prepared like venison and marinated in buttermilk gravy.
“Some recipes we serve now were served the first year they opened, but the menu is always kind of evolving too,” Brian Finn said. “Chris is always adding to it — not overhauling, but adding little bits here and there.”
A typical dinner might start with thick homemade bread with butter and jam, then move on to a small appetizer such as avocado stuffed with smoked fish, the choice of a hot or cold soup, a salad, one of eight large entrees in rich and elegant sauces, assorted desserts and finally a cheese and fruit tray. All that sells for $39 this season.
“That comparative value is key to getting people up the hill,” Brian Finn said. “You want to make the trip an occasion for everybody, but you keep your prices as fair as you can. The overhead is a little lower, since we’re not paying any mortgage or rent.”
There have been a few concessions to the changing times, including the alternative of a three-course meal for $32 and alterations for diners’ varied dietary needs. “We also bring in a lot more live music than we used to, on Friday and Sunday nights,” he said.
The brothers also tried to run the adjoining Bluebird Lodge as a bed-and-breakfast for eight years, he said, “but it drove us crazy. Now we just rent the whole building out for groups — like for weddings or reunions. But our main deal there is murder mystery weekends. A small production company writes the mysteries and comes up and puts them on, and people spend the night.”
But their focus is the inn, whose lobby includes a long wooden bar, a potbellied stove, walls full of historic photos, and three great stone fireplaces which earned a Boulder Weekly “Best of Boulder” award for the best “fireplace to drink next to.”
Flames nearly were the inn’s undoing eight years ago. The Fourmile Fire of 2010 came within 100 yards of the property. “It was pretty life-changing for everybody, including the fire crews and us,” Brian Finn said. “At one point, we were pretty sure everything was going. But it all had a storybook ending. The fire was coming on us, but the air tankers came and dropped a nice slurry line right where it needed to be, then the fire department came in and knocked it down the rest of the way.”
The brothers do get a change of scene once the inn closes for the season. “We have a little spot down in the Florida Keys, and we go fishing for a while,” Brian Finn said.
But their life is centered on the inn, and continuing to do the things that have lured generations of devoted diners and their flatland visitors up the mountain since the Kennedy administration.
“We’ll just hang on tight,” Brian Finn said. “We’ll add little things along the way, but we’re pretty happy, so we’ll hold the line as long as we can and still have fun with it.”