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Melissa Strong, an elite rock climber and owner of Estes Park restaurant Bird & Jim, is a lot like one of her business’ namesakes. Isabella Lucy Bird was a fearless explorer who was determined to summit Longs Peak in the 1870s. (Bird’s love interest, Jim Nugent, was a one-eyed mountain man locally known as a “desperado.”) “To have that gumption as a female and not let anything get in her way, that is my personality,” Strong says.
After working in the restaurant business for 20 years and moving to Estes in 1996, Strong decided to open her own spot. She found an old building—originally a hamburger stand built in 1926—with wide open views of Rocky Mountain National Park. She gutted, renovated, and designed the mountain-chic restaurant herself, keeping historical elements such as a vintage neon “restaurant” sign.
Keen observers might also notice intricate patterns, known as Lichtenberg figures, decorating the legs of Bird & Jim’s tables. The figures, which are created by burning designs into wood using electricity, almost cost Strong her life: She was using a transformer from an old microwave to make the figures when she accidentally grabbed two live leads—the 2,000 volts coursing through her hands wouldn’t let her break free. Eventually, a breaker tripped and Strong was able to scream for her husband.
The accident severely burned her hands, and she was told that her index and pinky fingers were all that could be saved. But there were still functioning blood vessels on the back of her hands, so Strong’s doctor sewed her thumbs to the opposite forearms to allow more blood flow to the injuries. Strong says she was in an “I Dream of Jeannie position” for weeks, but she now has what she describes as “fingers and thumbs of different shapes and sizes.”
Even during the healing process, Strong was determined to continue with Bird & Jim. She worked from her hospital bed, and, after more than a year of restoration and planning, the restaurant opened in October 2017. “It gave me something to focus on besides myself,” Strong says.
If Bird & Jim’s backstory gets people in the door, it’s chef Ethan Brown’s food that keeps them coming back. Items change seasonally, ingredients are sourced locally, and there’s an approachable mix of high-end options and more playful bites. The Mountain Jim Burger, for example, is irresistible. (Pro-tip: Go for happy hour, when it costs $10 instead of $14.) The grass-fed patty comes with white cheddar, tomatoes, and “magic sauce” (similar to In-N-Out Burger’s mayo- and ketchup-based “Animal Style” sauce), all sandwiched inside a soft brioche bun. Strong says another popular choice is the lamb bolognese ($23), made with spicy local lamb and pork sausage, San Marzano tomatoes, cream, and basil over pappardelle.
Strong’s business partner, John Witmer, is working towards his level three sommelier certification, so the 100-plus-bottle wine list is nuanced and fun to explore. Bird & Jim also makes excellent cocktails, including an Elkins Apple Sour ($10) made with Estes Park’s own Elkins Distilling Co. spiced apple liqueur, lemon, orange, St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, and bitters.
Bird & Jim has been such an out-of-the-gate success, expansion is already on the horizon: Strong plans to purchase a neighboring property to use for catering operations. Just like Isabella Bird, Strong continues to persist and thrive—she’s even taken up rock climbing again.
915 Moraine Ave, Estes Park, 970-586-9832