Six Places to Eat While Leaf-Peeping

Molly Martin
Get a couple of brown butter chocolate chip cookies for the road when you stop at the Craftsman.
For a few blissful weeks in late September and early October, Colorado turns golden as the aspen leaves change color — marking the often short but very sweet peak of fall weather. Now is the perfect time to head into the Rockies for a day of leaf-peeping. But as you drive up Guanella Pass or along the Peak to Peak Highway, you could find yourself getting very hungry.

Fortunately, there are some stellar spots to secure sustenance along the way. From old standbys to new discoveries, here are seven great pit stops:
Mac Nation/Facebook
Mac Nation
5510 Parmalee Gulch Road, Indian Hills
Distance from Denver: 30 minutes
Located just west of Red Rocks between Morrison and Evergreen, Mac Nation is ideally situated for catching fall colors in early October, after the peak season has passed farther west. And after a day of hiking and taking in the views, it's supremely satisfying to be served a hot aluminum pan loaded with comfort food: The menu is devoted entirely to variations on mac and cheese. This cozy spot with a multi-tiered patio was opened in 2015 by Alton McCullough; her mom, Kiki Frisbie, chipped in with the interior design. The result is cheery, colorful and cluttered, with mismatched chairs and cafe tables spilling out from the compact dining room. There are over forty topping combinations priced from $8 to $16, nearly all of them named for U.S. cities and states — hence the Mac Nation name. Each order is built with rotini (a fine substitute for elbow mac, since the coils hold more cheesy sauce) and topped with regional ingredients from around the country. Can't decide? Opt for a flight with three mac-and-cheese picks for $12. 
Parma Trattoria & Mozzarella Bar/Facebook
Parma Trattoria & Mozzarella Bar
1132 West Dillon Road, Louisville
Distance from Denver: 30 minutes
A different kind of cheesy pick-me-up awaits in Louisville, where one of the first mozzarella bars in the state (there's also Bacco Trattoria & Mozzarella Bar in Boulder) is located just off U.S. Highway 36, making it a great stop for anyone trekking to or from the Estes Park area. On weekends, it opens at 3:30 p.m. for dinner, and serves lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday. While Parma has a full menu, the real draw is the mozzarella bar. You can choose any combination of cheeses (four types of mozzarella, including burrata) and cured meats such as duck prosciutto and spicy Calabrese salami, along with condiments like green tomato marmalade and marinated zucchini. If you've really worked up an appetite, dive into the pizzas and pastas, then head home knowing that you'll sleep very well.
Bella La Crema/Facebook
Bella La Crema
405 Main Street, Lyons
Distance from Denver: 1 hour
Colorado is home to a truly unique culinary destination and this is your last chance to check it out; the world's first butter bar, which happens to be located between Boulder and Estes Park, will close September 25. Owner Shauna Lee Strecker churns butter from scratch with cream from grass-fed cows, and uses it to create a selection of compound butters that you can sample on crusty baguettes. Ten varieties are currently available. Some are savory, like the Ode to Neruda, with paprika, garlic, onion and lime; it was inspired by the poet, who wrote many odes to common objects, including foods. On the sweet side, options include Monet's Garden, with lavender, vanilla, rose and nutmeg; and Sunrise Saffron Shine, with saffron, turmeric, cinnamon, lemon and honey. There's also a small menu that often features soups, charcuterie, sandwiches, quiche and baked goods, as well as wine available by the glass or bottle.
Shakes and hand-cut fries await at this iconic hot dog. - CONEY ISLAND BOARDWALK/FACEBOOK
Shakes and hand-cut fries await at this iconic hot dog.
Coney Island Boardwalk/Facebook
Coney Island Boardwalk
10 Old Stagecoach Road, Bailey

Distance from Denver: 1 hour
How did a hot dog-shaped restaurant end up in a small mountain town just east of Kenosha Pass, a prime aspen-viewing destination? The history of Coney Island is as long as the giant weiner itself, dating back to 1966, when the original structure was built on West Colfax Avenue. In 1970 it was moved to Aspen Park, and then in 2006 was relocated to its current home. The last owner, Ron Aigner, had tried to sell the building itself before putting the whole parcel up for sale. In 2016, it was purchased by John D. Wallace, who kept the hot dog in Bailey but updated the menu a bit, adding dogs and other links from Denver's CharcutNuvo (formerly Continental Sausage) as well as other Colorado products like Elevation ketchup, Merf's mustard, beverages from Rocky Mountain Soda and hand-cut, Belgian-style fries.
click to enlarge THE POST CHICKEN & BEER
The Post Chicken & Beer
The Post Chicken & Beer
333 East Wonderview Avenue, Estes Park
Distance from Denver: 1.5 hours
Rocky Mountain National Park is a stunning destination in the fall, and at the entrance is Estes Park, where a visit to the Stanley Hotel, the place that inspired Stephen King's The Shining, is required. While the Stanley does have its own restaurant, it now boasts another option for food — and it's a road-trip favorite: fried chicken (which happens to be gluten-free at the Post). This link in the Big Red F chain opened in July in a utility building that once held Stanley steam engines. The addition is part of a series of upgrades to the hotel in recent years, and while you'll have to pay $10 for parking, you'll also get a $5 credit toward your meal.
Tin Plate Pizza/Facebook
Tin Plate
110 South Ridge Street, Breckenridge
Distance from Denver: 1.5 hours

If you'd rather skip hiking in favor of a shopping trip down a quaint main street while you enjoy the fall colors, Breckenridge is the place to be this time of year. And the place to eat is Tin Plate, a restaurant that debuted in June in a restored mining cabin. The 1883 building was home to the town’s gold assayer and is where Colorado's largest gold nugget, Tom's Baby, was kept overnight before being moved by train to Denver. Today, the pizza is the real treasure here. Pies are made on sourdough crust using locally milled flour and run the gamut from traditional cheese, pepperoni and sausage to a pineapple pancetta version or the elote, topped with corn, roasted poblanos, goat cheese, Tajín seasoning and lime-pickled onion. Pro tip: Order your pie with a side of chile-infused Bjorn's Colorado honey. 
click to enlarge The Nashville hot chicken sandwich at the Craftsman is worth a pit stop. - MOLLY MARTIN
The Nashville hot chicken sandwich at the Craftsman is worth a pit stop.
Molly Martin
56 Edwards Village Boulevard, Edwards
Distance from Denver: 2 hours
Located just west of Vail, where you can take a fall-hued gondola ride through October 3, this eatery serves up some of the best sandwiches in the state. Owned by the husband-and-wife team of Christopher and Janelle Schmidt, Craftsman is known for putting its own spin on classic sandwich staples. The Philly, made with shaved ribeye, gets a Colorado bite from green chiles, while a vegetarian "pastrami" is made with mushrooms and the Nashville hot chicken sandwich heats up with ghost peppers and cools down with a slathering of ranch. Pair your sandwich with a heaping pile of fries with vadouvan (a curry spice blend) butter, caramelized onions and a mountain of parmesan on top. You can eat in, but taking your food to go and enjoying it along the banks of the Eagle River is highly recommended.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Bella La Crema will close September 25.