After year of suffering though mediocre to subpar food, and apathetic, unwelcoming service in Estes Park, I have finally found my restaurant home there. This is the first 5-star review I’ve written for a restaurant in Estes, and I can say that hands down, The Rock Inn deserves each and every star. I am head-over-heels in love with this place, and it’s going to be exceptionally difficult for me to dine anywhere else when I’m up that way.
Thanks to my outdoor addiction and writing Fresh Air Fort Collins, I’m in Rocky Mountain National Park every other weekend – at least. With every snowshoe excursion, every treeline hike, and every high alpine fishing adventure, I follow that up with a burger and a beer. Or at least, that’s the goal anyway. I certainly work up an appetite, and a juicy burger with a cold beer is the cherry on top of an amazing day in the Colorado outdoors.
Finding the best burger in Estes has been a high priority for me because of this. One day coming out of the park I turned off highway 36 and onto Moraine Avenue, just to see what was over that way. I had no reason to turn there before, but holy hell, was I missing out on mountain town dining GOLD.
Photo Credit: The Rock Inn Facebook Page
The Rock Inn Mountain Tavern was built in 1937 as a dance hall in the Big Band Era. So, it has been around for a good while. I’m shocked I don’t hear more people talking about this place because of it. The log cabin feel with wood-burning stoves, the 79-year-old stage still in place, and a bit of taxidermy hung on the walls makes you feel right at mountain-home. Often referred to as “The Rock,” this is a favorite local hangout and you can tell the minute you walk in. Neighbors chatting it up and laughing at the bar, everyone seems to know each other, and a welcoming smile from the people around you. It is awesome!
After gear testing a set of trail crampons at Mills Lake, I set up for a burger and an Odell IPA (one of my favorite post-hike beverages). There was a small acoustic band playing as the snow fell gently outside. The restaurant warm and toasty inside. Talk about a picturesque moment.
This burger was off the hook. Their buns are substantial enough to soak up all of that juicy goodness that leaks out from the burger, and they don’t fall apart like cheap basic buns. The Certified Angus beef burger has beautiful grill marks, but most importantly, it is packed with flavor. This is a restaurant that focuses on quality ingredients.
This is also where I discovered their fantastic happy hour – 2 for 1 house wines and house drafts every day from 4-6pm. The best part is that if you don’t take advantage of the 2-for-1 offer they give you a wooden nickel for your next visit. I already have a few saved up. It’s great marketing on their part, because now I want to keep going and collect a few more. “You’re going to be like the locals in here, where they save up a bunch and buy the whole bar a beer,” one server told me. Another reason I automatically love this place.
Along with their regular burger, I’ve also had their free range 100% natural buffalo burger with sweet potato fries. This was after gear testing some new goggles during a white out storm at Emerald Lake, so I was already on a mountain high from the amazing trail experience. I sat next to one of the wood-burning stoves, listened to some bluegrass acoustic guitar, and felt a rush of pure joy as I bit into the burger and took a sip of 90 Shilling. These burger and beer moments are almost like religious experiences for me, and it’s not exclusive to The Rock Inn. Any top notch burger and beer will do it. I often feel this overwhelming sense of joy eating a post-hike burger at The Mish. But, they never happen while eating an average burger. So, this is the true test for me. If I feel that burger and beer joy, I’m sold – hook, line, and sinker.
Burgers and beer aren’t the only things that The Rock does well. My outdoor adventure partner and Feasting Fort Collins sponsor Jenny with Nancy Bond Insurance joined me for a full on smorgasborg after 2 back-to-back trails and a high mileage day in the park.
We started with Devils on Horseback – garlic stuffed, bacon wrapped dates served with aioli dipping sauce. These are rich and addictive little morsels, with the sugary spike from the date and the fatty contrast from the bacon. Sharing a plate is a good idea.
I ordered the Pan-Seared Trout with dill butter and lemon, served with a side salad, warm bread basket, seasonal vegetables that included carrots and kale, and over a bed of creamy polenta.
It felt like enough food to feed an army. Or a hungry hiker that needed to calorie load after an epic day in the mountains. Either way. I actually don’t think I’ve been more full from a post-hike meal, and I was sure to scrape just about every bit of deliciousness off my plate. The trout was delicate and flaky, without the deep muddy flavor you expect from freshwater fish. And the polenta mixed with the kale was the perfect accompanying bite that added contrast in texture and a richness in flavor.
Ugh, I’m so hungry just writing about this and I can’t wait to go back.
All amazing food experiences side, long-time readers know that I rarely – if ever – mention service in reviews. For the most part service is a non-issue. I get my food in a timely manner, my water is full, and I don’t sit around waiting for a check. Nothing special, nothing bad – just the way things are supposed to be. I have low expectations to begin with. I’ll mention serivce if there is something extraordinarily positive, or negative for that matter. Service standards in Estes are downright atrocious across the board. I’ve never had more moments of being completely ignored or menus tossed across the table with attitude anywhere else. It’s the one thing I hate about eating in Estes. BUT! The service at The Rock is a breath of fresh air. I’ve always been seated quickly, servers are cheery and happy to be there, and it’s just an overall great time for a dining experience.
If I haven’t gushed enough about this place, I don’t know what else could do it. All I know is that there are more restaurants to explore and write about in Estes Park. Because of The Rock, the bar has been set on what can come from Estes dining, and I’m disappointed that I can’t eat there each and every time I leave Rocky Mountain National Park. If I could, my butt would be there at the bar buying people beer with my Happy Hour wooden nickels.
The Rock Inn Mountain Tavern
1675 State Highway 66, Estes Park
Kid-Friendly? It absolutely is!
Parking: Small parking lot out front and to the side
Healthy Options? Plenty. Vegetarian, a couple of vegan options, and a full Gluten-Free menu
Budget-Friendly? Average Estes pricing – $15-$25 per plate
Recent Health Inspection: Excellent