By Christine Benedetti | December 14, 2015 | Food & Drink
SO Café serves up fresh views and seasonal menus atop the Aspen Art Museum.
SO Café's “tapas” sampler of salami, olives, cheese, and quiche.
Kunsthalle would be the German term used to describe the Aspen Art Museum’s approach to its collection—namely, that it doesn’t have one. So when the non-collecting institution opened its Shigeru Ban-designed building in Downtown Aspen in August 2014, the museum’s third-floor café needed to reflect that same approach.
“Our weekly-changing menu was born from [the museum’s] philosophy—and [the building’s] cooking constraints,” says Allen Domingos, who owns Epicure Catering, the company behind SO café, with his wife, Julia. The couple already had a longstanding relationship with the museum, providing food service for many of the nonproft’s events. So, when AAM approached them to operate the food and beverage components of their brand-new digs, the pair jumped on it—and set off on a world tour to seek inspiration.
“Over [the course of] a year, we traveled to check out museum cafés in places like New York and Paris,” says Allen. “We saw everything from boring old sandwich counters to Danny Meyer-plated meals at MoMA [in New York]. We [knew we] wanted to do something that wasn’t just a sandwich place, and we developed our concept over time.”
The result is SO, a lunch-only café nestled in the museum’s wood-latticed top floor. It features locally sourced food, and a menu that changes every week—its Monday closure means patrons can always expect a surprise with each menu’s Tuesday debut. “We don’t have a plan going in until we get to the Saturday market or see what [vendors] are bringing us,” says Allen. But it’s not just the markets that drive the cuisine—the Domingoses are always taking the goings-on around town into consideration: when Tibetan monks created a sand mandala at the museum last summer, SO served up an Indian-style vegan curry; over the Fourth of July, a throwback Waldorf salad and a salmon BLT made the menu.
The museum’s limitations—no open flame, minimal off-gassing (to reduce smells)—can make cooking tricky. As a result, Epicure preps most of its food off-site. Luckily, winter items that can be easily transported and reheated, like soups made from potatoes or hearty squashes, make adhering to the building’s rules easier—and tastier.
But it’s also a feast for the eyes. The café is technically a public space, and open 24/7 so that locals and visitors alike may take advantage of the sweeping views of Aspen Mountain and Independence Pass. And the Domingoses have achieved a similarly inclusive feeling in their handling of the space. “We want the food to make sense and be done beautifully,” says Allen. “I want people to feel like they can come have a coffee, some wine, some food—it’s a place for everyone in town.” To date, that’s just SO. Aspen Art Museum, 637 E. Hyman Ave., 970-925-8050
Photography by Michael Aberman/Aspen Art Museum