A social worker and a chemist from the East Coast, a 90-year-old building in a tiny Colorado mountain settlement, and an idea gleaned from a poem.
It’s a little surprising 50 years later that a successful restaurant emerged from these unconventional origins. Surprising, that is, if you didn’t know anything about Frank and Barbara Finn, a couple who took to the wide-open possibilities of the West with relish when they opened Gold Hill Inn in 1962.
The pair were a couple of adventurers who fell in love with Gold Hill after Frank, co-founder of the Boulder YMCA, took a job at a ranch there as a caretaker. The camp provided a free place to live for the couple and their children, albeit one without amenities, not even an outhouse.
“They answered an ad at the Trojan Ranch,” says son Brian Finn, who with his brother, Chris, now runs the Gold Hill Inn. “They had never seen a potbelly stove.”
When the ranch gig ended, the Finns took over the Red Store on Main Street, which provided them with a view of their future business opportunity. They watched as prospective buyers paraded through the log buildings — the nine-bedroom Bluebird Lodge and the Gold Hill Inn.
All the while, a line from a poem by Eugene Field began to sprout like a potato in the cellar: “… he’d done a thousand things … but somehow hadn’t caught on, and drifted with the rest, he drifted for a fortune to the undeveloped west … he opened up a cafe, and he run a table d’hote.”
Barbara took inspiration not only from the poem but its business model too. She wanted to open a cafe with a multi-course menu and a fixed price — a table d’hote. The idea works in 2012 just as it did in 1962. Currently, a six-course meal from a changing menu goes for $35 and a newly added three-course menu is available for $25 for those without mountain appetites.
The restaurant was something different, and customers liked it both for its unique location and building and for its menu, which was more varied and adventurous than the steak and potato joints of the era.
“It was a hit pretty much off the bat,” Brian says, especially with customers from the University of Colorado and the government labs. “It was a genuine place in Colorado, not too far from Boulder, where they could take clients to a rustic dinner in the mountains.” And so it is today, although there are more regulars than out-of-towners.
Bob Muckle, the mayor of Louisville, has been going to the restaurant since 1969. “It was my grandfather’s favorite place to go for his birthday,” he says.
The original logs, chinking and floors (the roof is reinforced by newer trusses) and the three stone fireplaces bespeak the restaurant’s gold rush-era origins. The gingham check curtains frame windows that are opened in the warm summers, just as fires burn in the fireplaces in the fall.
The restaurant is open from May through December, a schedule adopted when Brian and Barbara ran it. They originally tried to stay open in the winter, with only wood for heat. After a disastrous dinner attended by the then-governor, in which a bus full of guests got stuck on Lick Skillet Road, the Finns came up with the current schedule.
Music was also an integral part of the business from its early days. A jug band composed mostly of scientists and University of Colorado faculty played regularly. A bluegrass band called the Dillards, who performed on the “Andy Griffith Show,” also were a mainstay. Today, music is featured on Friday nights and on Sundays.
Brian and Chris Finn grew up working in the restaurant. Brian gravitated to the front of the house and Chris to the kitchen.
Chris takes much of his cooking philosophy from his mother. As many cooks of her era did, she used “Joy of Cooking” as her bible, modifying recipes as she thought appropriate. She also tapped into international cookbooks for inspiration, Chris says.
Today, Chris describes the current menu as “mountain gourmet.” Like his mother, he favors international preparations that still have a familiar feel. “We might have anything from Jamaican pork to Korean pork or even unsmoked ham with roasted apricot sauce. A lot of it comes down to my mood,” he says.
Brian Finn says he and his brother are inspired by their parents, who died several years ago, and their wild idea of opening a restaurant without any experience or preparation.
“They really are the essence of what this place is,” he says. “We just try to carry on their craziness.”
Gold Hill Inn
401 Main St., Gold Hill
“Casey’s Table d’ Hote” by Eugene Field
A table d’hote is different from orderin’ aller cart,
In one case you git all ther is, t’ other, only part!
And Casey’s table d’ hote began in French,-
as all begin, And Casey’s ended with the same,
which is to say, with ‘vin’;
But in between wuz every kind of reptile, bird, ‘nd beast,
The same like you can git in high-toned restauraws down east;
‘Nd windin’ up wuz cake or pie, with coffee demy tass,
Or, sometimes, floatin’ Ireland in a soothin’ kind of sass
That left a sort of pleasant ticklin’ in a feller’s throat,
‘Nd made him a hanker after more of Casey’s table d’hote.