When Phillips Armstrong, a young, ambitious restaurateur in Steamboat Springs, began looking for a location to open a contemporary restaurant in Breckenridge, a lot of people told him he was crazy.
Armstrong already owned two eateries in Steamboat—Aurum Food and Wine, which opened in 2014, and Table 79, which opened three years later—and it’s no secret that Breckenridge’s dining options are as plentiful as the snow. Still, he says, “I thought there was an opportunity to do something really well.”
He met a group of seven investors who were in the early phases of developing an empty lot on Ridge Street near six other popular restaurants, including local favorites Twist, Hearthstone, Angel’s Hollow, and Fatty’s. They and Armstrong struck a deal to build a sprawling Victorian-style commercial space that would house Aurum Breckenridge, but six months into the project, the funding that Armstrong had secured for his expansion into Breck fell through.
After secretly vetting Aurum and Table 79 in Steamboat—“they wanted to make sure we were legit,” Armstrong grins—the investors ultimately acquired a financial stake in the 37-year-old’s Breck project, with Armstrong maintaining the majority and running the business.
Aurum Breckenridge opened in late July with a seasonal American menu and a refined aesthetic interior, blending vaulted ceilings and ample natural light with wooden interior accents, an array of classic local photographs sourced through longtime lensman Carl Scofield, and exposed copper piping—as well as what arguably is the most striking bar in town. But for Armstrong, food and feel are only part of the Aurum experience; the other essential element is customer service.
“We always look for different ways to style people out,” he says. “Like, if we overhear that they’re fans of whiskey, maybe we’ll bring over a whiskey flight on the house. People are looking for a show these days—something unexpected. And if restaurants aren’t embracing that and providing it, they’re missing the boat.”
Coming from a family with no restaurant experience, Armstrong learned on the fly in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, where he grew up. He took a job busing tables “at this mafia-run Italian joint in our hometown. Owner’s name was Sal. I was the only non-family member who worked there. When you’re making 70 or 80 bucks every night as a 13-year-old, you get addicted to it really quick.” Armstrong went on to work in resort markets around the country, from Martha’s Vineyard to Palm Springs to Telluride. He managed the Beaver Creek Chop House and Restaurant Kelly Liken in Vail. After a stint in Estes Park, he landed in Steamboat and opened Aurum (the Latin word for gold).
At Aurum Breckenridge, he infused the same flair that made the original a must-dine venue for skiers visiting from big-city markets. For instance, the wine list—full of “super-geeky, off-beat varietals”—is organized by music genre: pop, jazz, classics, bluegrass, and country. Happy hour (from 4 to 6 p.m.) features creative half-priced apps and a deluxe French onion burger for $9.50 (after the discount). “We try to have the best happy hour in town,” Armstrong says, “because in places like this, if the locals love you, they might not spend their money in here, but they’re riding the lifts with people who will.”
Armstrong’s most crucial move may have been convincing Executive Chef Korey Sims to leave the popular TAG Restaurant Group in Denver to run Aurum’s kitchen. “Korey’s the kind of guy who gets bored cooking the same things,” Armstrong says. To wit: two months after opening, almost the entire menu had changed. Although Sims declined to share his winter menu before it was finalized at press time, a few staples are likely to endure. Among them: the hamachi crudo, a shared plate of thinly sliced Pacific yellowtail; charred Spanish octopus; and Korean fried chicken. You can also expect the Corner Post Ranch Daily Pork—a rotating portion of whole hog sourced from a pasture-to-plate purveyor in Colorado Springs—to make the cut. Main courses range from $28 to $38.
“This is not the kind of place where you’re going to get super attached to a specific dish,” Armstrong says. “We want someone to be able to throw a dart at the menu and count on it landing on something awesome.” It’s an ambitious objective from a restaurateur with a track record of meeting them.
209 S Ridge St, Breckenridge