Unique inn logs 50 years

‘Mountain gourmet’ menu keeps regulars coming and attracts curious newcomers

Bartender Pete Caterina pours a cocktail for a customer at the Gold Hill Inn in Gold Hill, northwest of Boulder. The restaurant’s business plan came from a line in a poem by 19th-century writer Eugene Field. Enlarge photo

Jeremy Papasso/ The (Boulder) Daily Camera

Bartender Pete Caterina pours a cocktail for a customer at the Gold Hill Inn in Gold Hill, northwest of Boulder. The restaurant’s business plan came from a line in a poem by 19th-century writer Eugene Field.

BOULDER

Asocial worker and a chemist from the East Coast, a 90-year-old building in a tiny 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,” said son Brian Finn, who with his brother, Chris, now runs the Gold Hill Inn. “They had never seen a pot belly 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 café, and he run a table d’hôte.”

Barbara took inspiration not only from the poem but its business model too. She wanted to open a café with a multi-course menu and a fixed price – a table d’hôte. 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 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.”

Today, Chris describes the 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”