My mom has only commanded a classroom since I was a teenager, but she's always been a teacher at heart, and when I was a kid growing up in the southern suburbs of Denver, she'd devise elaborate lessons for my brother and me to carry out over summer break, packing us into the minivan and taking day or weekend trips to obscure corners of Colorado. We were particularly fascinated with the gold rush and this state's mining history, and we spent a lot of time in towns like Cripple Creek and Leadville.
But in all those travels, we never made it to Gold Hill, a mining town high on a hillside ten miles outside of Boulder.
We made up for that omission a few weeks ago, when my mom and I drove her Subaru up the treacherous, winding dirt road to Gold Hill. As we coasted into town — population 230, according to a tiny sign — I put away my useless cell phone and regretted not changing out of my business-casual attire. It was like we'd stepped back in time, and I definitely did not fit in.
Gold Hill Inn
401 Main Street, Gold Hill
Hours: 6-9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 5-8 p.m. Sunday
Gold Hill Inn
Six-course dinner $35
Three-course dinner $25
According to local lore, Gold Hill was the first permanent mining camp in what would become the state of Colorado, established in the late 1850s beneath Gold Run, the first lode discovered in this part of what was then the Nebraska Territory. The gold was tapped out soon after Colorado became a territory in 1862, leading to a major exodus. But the town boomed again in the 1870s, and that's when inns began opening in Gold Hill. One of those was the Wentworth Hotel, a luxury (for the time) property designed to lure in tourists. Almost fifty years later it became the Bluebird Lodge, a vacation spot for single women, and a dining hall was added to the grounds. By the 1960s, when the demand for single women's vacations had long since disappeared, Barbara and Frank Finn bought the sleepy Bluebird and turned the dining hall into the Gold Hill Inn, where they served multi-course dinners to travelers coming up the mountain for a meal and a hefty helping of history in a spot that still featured dirt roads and log cabins.
More photos: At the Gold Hill Inn, atmosphere goes a long way
Fifty years later, not much has changed in Gold Hill — although the Finns' sons, Brian and Chris, are now in charge of the Gold Hill Inn. The wooden door into the restaurant creaks with age, and the walls are loaded with kitsch: old paintings, black-and-white photos, ancient liquor bottles in an antique case. Still, there are a few signs of more current events, including mementos of the Four Mile Canyon Fire in 2010, when the inferno crawled up to the edge of town and threatened to destroy Gold Hill. The Gold Hill Inn was left unscathed (it still smells like a campfire, but then, mountain air just sort of smells like that sometimes), and although it had to close earlier than usual that season, it was ready for business in 2011.
And business looks good at the Gold Hill Inn. Although there was no live music this night (the place frequently offers live bluegrass and other entertainment), several of the tables were filled, and a couple of grubby kids darted around the front room while members of their large, extended family laughed raucously at the bar.
Both of the Finn sons gave us a gracious welcome when we arrived, invited us to study the chalkboard menu — the dinners are still multi-course, and you have the option of all six dishes offered that night for $35, or three for $25 — and then we were led to our table in the expansive, rustic dining room. It reminded me of the mess hall at my childhood summer camp, except that we were presented with a wine list — and when I opened it, I had to laugh. Since the Gold Hill Inn is very casual, I'd expected a list of cheap, generic bottles. But instead the list was filled with wine far more expensive than the food we were about to consume, steeped in opulent Napa Valley wines, with a few old-vintage burgundies and Rhones available, too, at price points that climbed well above $100.
Thinking about the drive home, we passed on the wine. But as soon as our first course arrived, I wished we hadn't. It turns out that the setting isn't the only thing about the Gold Hill Inn that's reminiscent of a camp mess hall. The food is, too. And it might have been more palatable if I'd sucked down an expensive wine first.
We'd opted for the six-course tasting. The first dish up was guacamole, a tiny, brownish lump of smashed avocado on wilted lettuce accompanied by a dry carrot stick, a celery stalk and a stale cracker. We tried a bite, then waved it off and waited for the soup course. My mom had opted for the cold Russian spinach soup, which appeared to contain no spinach at all; rather, it tasted like someone had scooped a little dill-infused chip dip out of a plastic tub and added water. My "fish chowder" was worse. While chowders don't have to be made with cream or milk (though that's the most common variety), they're supposed to be thickish stews. This chowder was just watery broth filled with bits of boiled potatoes and what I suspect was canned tuna. The salad was better — but then, it's hard to mess up a bed of leaf lettuce, a couple sticks of jicama, a handful of croutons and a few slices of cucumber, though the house dressing was definitely out of whack, both creamy and caustically acidic. Fortunately, these disasters came with a dense, crumbly, seedy loaf of homemade bread as well as butter and some runny strawberry jam. We ate the bread greedily, fighting over the last crumb, fearing for what our entrees might bring.
My rainbow trout — stuffed with a celery-onion-breadcrumb mixture, broiled and served whole, its flaky flesh imbued with smoke — was surprisingly good. But my mom's main course was another mess. She'd opted for the bacon-wrapped filet; bafflingly, the beef had been cooked into leather while the bacon was almost raw. That inconsistency was the most interesting thing about the dish, which otherwise tasted like something made for a high-blood-pressure patient on a strict low-sodium diet. The sides of wild rice and whipped yams were fine in a grandmotherly kind of way — but the ratatouille tasted a lot like chunky tomato sauce from the jar, despite the host's assurance that "everything that can be homemade is homemade." And the chocolate-mint mousse served for dessert tasted too oddly synthetic to really seem homemade.
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By the time the cheese tray arrived, we were done. Too bad this dish hadn't come first: Though it featured smoked gouda that you could buy in the grocery store and bunches of grapes, at least everything looked edible.
The party was still going in the front room as we wandered out the door, and I wondered for a moment where the kids had gone, since the adults seemed to be just gearing up for a good time. And then I wondered how many other parties have sat in that front room drinking and trading stories over the decades, and what stories I might have missed out on by sitting in the dining room. The Gold Hill Inn may be steeped in history, but it's hard to absorb that history over a disappointing dinner.
I'll definitely return to the Gold Hill, but next time I'll post up at the bar: listening to music, sipping whiskey, eating bread and devouring the much more appetizing aspects of this Colorado institution.
More photos: At the Gold Hill Inn, atmosphere goes a long way