Dining scene changing in S.R.

Many businesses closing doors or altering menus

— The restaurant scene in South Routt is changing.

For the first time, The Colorado Bar and Grill served dinner Tuesday night, complete with salad and dessert. It has been serving steaks and burgers since hunting season, but co-owner Becky Elliot said they decided to expand their menu to fill a need in Oak Creek. The Colorado even hired a new cook, former Big Tuna's employee Blue Halterman, to cover the dinner shift.

South Routt has traditionally been a great spot for dining. Every summer for the past five years, Oak Creek showcases the food of the area with a weekend food festival called the "Taste of South Routt." Diners travel from all over the county and as far away as Vail to eat at Chelsea's Chinese Restaurant, for a burger at The Colorado or Big Tuna's.

"South Routt is such a little gold mine (for restaurants)," Big Tuna's co-owner Kim Baum said.

But recently, South Routt restaurants have been closing their doors one by one.

The Antlers, in Yampa, closed its kitchen after more than 100 years and is up for sale.

Big Tuna's and Chelsea's, in Oak Creek, both closed for mud season. Big Tuna's has yet to announce a date for reopening.

"We are still trying to get our financing worked out," Baum said. "We are planning to reopen toward the end of the month. That is our desire and our prayer."

The two head chefs, Brian and Dean Pruvost, are on standby, she said.

Kim and Tom Baum of Big Tuna's were surprised when they saw the new dinner menu from The Colorado.

"It is identical to ours," said Kim Baum. "Down to the chicken-fried steak and salmon, it's a duplicate menu."

Chef Dean Pruvost said that there were no hard feelings.

"It's just like the old-time saying, 'Imitation is the finest form of flattery,'" he said.

As for other South Routt restaurant staples, Chelsea's traded hands during its closure and will reopen this month under the ownership of Oak Creek couple Andy and Jaila Benjamin. Chelsea's longtime chef David Chen will remain with the restaurant.

At 36, Jaila Benjamin has worked in restaurants for 20 years, but this is the first restaurant she and her husband have owned.

"We're frightened, but we are hardworking people and I'm sure everything will turn out," Andy Benjamin said.

They feel confident mainly because Chelsea's has a good reputation countywide. Diners drive from Steamboat Springs often for Chen's Chinese cooking.

Chen lives in Oak Creek with his family. He moved to town 12 years ago from San Francisco after the owner of Chelsea's recruited him. The Benjamins will be the fifth owners he has worked under.

The couple has yet to announce their official opening date, but their grand opening is scheduled for Feb. 1, Chinese New Year.

Until then, the hole left by Big Tuna's and Chelsea's is being filled by The Colorado. Its new dinner menu features steaks, pork chops, salmon and nightly dinner specials ranging from Mexican to surf and turf.

New chef Halterman will take his place in The Colorado's kitchen once dinner catches on, Elliott said. Until then, certified chef Tim MacDonald will be cooking.

The owners hope to attract "anyone who's hungry," Elliott said.

-- To reach Autumn Phillips call 871-4210

or e-mail aphillips@steamboatpilot.com

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