Among the many legends of Estes Park, Colorado, there’s the legend of Mountain Man Jim and the English Lady Isabella Bird.
Their love could never be, but Estes Park is a magical place where dreams come to life, even if they don’t always come true.
Around that Mountain West legend, there’s a restaurant there called Bird and Jim, which is about two hours from Cheyenne. Estes Park serves as the gateway community to Rocky Mountain National Park and has many options for a lovely dinner, but if one only has time to eat at one location, this one has to be it.
The Bird and Jim the restaurant is, like its namesake legend, one part dream and two parts inspiration. It offers a laid-back, Western dining scene that brings elevated, Mountain West food to life.
Seventy percent of the ingredients used at Bird and Jim come from the Mountain West, but a New York chef who has traveled the country learning his craft prepares it all, and every bite is perfect.
Notable standbys are The Hallett Peak bowl, a layered creation that sources fresh, seasonal ingredients. It’s a mountain in a bowl with layers of flavors that satisfy — just like summiting a mountain. There’s also the pheasant chowder, which is a year-round favorite.
And there’s always something fresh and surprising on the menu in each season. Lamb chops with cilantro cauliflower rice and pineapple, for example. An adventurer could drive a long way — to New York even — and not find a more perfect dish and, it’s not only perfectly prepared, it’s reasonably affordable to boot.
Bringing Local Foods To Estes Park
The concept of a restaurant centered around locally sourced foods was the vision of Melissa Strong, an avid rock climber. She and her partners opened the restaurant six years ago.
It’s a dream that almost killed her.
Strong was using the Licthenburg technique on some of the old tables in the restaurant she’d bought, which etches wood with rivers of electricity.
The old restaurant, once called the Sun Deck, had been a seasonal hamburger joint in its day that wasn’t even winterized. Preparing it to become the vision she had of a comfortable year-round gathering space had been a lot more costly than anticipated.
The old tables from the Sun Deck didn’t really fit her vision, but they did fit her budget. She thought she could make them fit her vision by decorating them with the interesting patterns that were flowing from the electrical wand she was using to etch them with abstract, artistic shapes.
“Unfortunately, I made a very grave mistake, and I connected myself to that electric chain,” she said.
The only thing that saved Strong was that her body’s connection with the electric arc overloaded the circuit breaker in her house.
“I had to go through nine surgeries, and it was amazing that I was alive,” she said. “But I lost portions of my hands.”
Strong’s restaurant opened less than a year after the accident in October 2017.
“I still had stitches in my hands, and I still had surgeries to go through after we opened,” she said.
When her husband asked if she was happy that one of her dreams had come true, she broke down.
“Well, in my dreams,” she said, “I still had my hands.”
Still Reaching For Higher Peaks
Strong, in addition to owning Bird and Jim was, before the accident, a sponsored rock climber, which means she was climbing some of the world’s most difficult heights.
The accident has complicated that pursuit, though Strong is finding ways to keep chasing that dream as well.
Strong hadn’t started out life planning to be a rock climber or a restaurant owner.
She was going to get a doctorate in medieval literature and then return home, settle down, get married. But first, she and the boyfriend she’d dated throughout college were going to live a year in the mountains before starting their “real” life.
The two had passed often through the Smoky Mountains on their way home to Massachusetts from school in New Orleans.
“But something was just calling me out West,” Strong said. “I said, ‘You know, if I’m going to live in the mountains, I want to go live in the real mountains.’
“No offense to North Carolina and Virginia. They have mountains, but you know, they’re a different size and caliber to what we have out here.”
The mountains in Whitefish, Montana, were, in the ’90s, too isolated, Strong decided, so she rejected them. Bend, Oregon, meanwhile, didn’t suit the boyfriend, so he rejected that.
“We were also getting an understanding of how expensive it is to live in ski resorts,” she said. “It’s ridiculous. Like, we’re not gonna even save a penny.”
In a Motel 6, the couple were fighting about their future. The boyfriend suggested flipping a coin. Heads: Go home to Massachusetts. Tails: Go back to New Orleans.
But neither option suited Melissa.
“You’ve never listened to me,” she said. “I’ll never live in New Orleans again, and I’m not ready to move back to Massachusetts. Let’s just go back to that Estes Park town. It was cute. It was affordable. It wasn’t too remote, and it had a mountain town feeling.”
Tears ran down her face as Strong drove back to Estes Park. Within 10 months, the boyfriend had gone back home, but Strong had found a new destiny.
She climbed rocks by day, worked in a restaurant by night and forgot about the medieval literature degree and the white picket fence in Massachusetts. They didn’t suit her at all.
Her dreams were all in the West.
Bird And Jim
The story of how Strong came to Estes Park is really also the story of how her restaurant came to be named after the Mountain West legend, Bird and Jim.
It’s a well-known story around Estes Park, this doomed love of the Mountain Man for the beautiful English Lady.
Bird would always deny that she loved Jim. And when he told her that he’d fallen for her, her letters say that she told him in no uncertain terms that it could never be.
But there was also passion hidden between the lines of those letters about Estes Park and Mountain Man Jim. The two shared a moment in a magical place and time, and it’s impossible to think that the rugged mountain man did not at least find a special corner of the lady’s heart, even if that love was ill-fated.
“It always impressed me that she was a single, lone, female traveler in the late 1800s,” Strong said. “You know, that was just unheard of. And the fact that she would go against the norms and constraints of society and follow her passions. I thought that was pretty impressive.”
Naming the restaurant, Strong had a list she was going over with her partners.
“I had said Isabel’s, and someone is like, who the hell is Isabel?” Strong said. “I’m like, Isabel Bird and Mountain Jim, it’s local history.”
As she wrote the name Bird and Jim down on the list, she realized she’d found the one.
“She made it,” Strong said. “And she was just such a cool character. It felt like a great tribute to The West, and all the history that came before us.”
It also struck a deep chord for Strong.
“I was for a long time a single female in Estes Park, and I was going against, I guess, the constraints of my own society,” she said.
That society had required that she go to college and become a professional, get married, and never leave New England.
“I followed, you know, what I wanted to do in life, and accidentally I landed in Estes Park and I never left,” she said.