James Ranch Grill Opens New Doors to Classic Cooking
After eight years of running a popular grill from a food wagon in the Animas Valley, Cynthia James Stewart reached a critical decision point for her top-tier burgers and salads: “We had to either quit or grow,” she says.
The concept of quitting doesn’t seem to exist in her family. James Ranch started as a cattle ranch north of Durango in 1961. Since then, the children of founders Dave and Kay James have gone on to start their own businesses as part of the ranch’s growing ecosystem. Cynthia is no exception; although she left Durango for New York City as a career woman, she discovered her love of cooking at age 37 and ultimately returned home to combine into her own entrées the beef, vegetables, eggs and cheese for which her family is so known.
Eight years later, she and her husband, Robert, chose to grow. And now, James Ranch Grill has opened the doors (and magnificent picture windows) of its stunning new structure, housed alongside the James Ranch Market just mere minutes from town. As always, the beef and a large portion of the produce come right from the ranch out back. And also as always, Cynthia prides herself on using the freshest in-season ingredients.
But the new building brought along other new changes. At long last, James Ranch Grill will be open through the winter, from Thursday through Sunday. The grill is now equipped to take call-in takeout orders. And along with the shift in weather, the grill will be shifting the menu.
“People need to eat seasonally,” Cynthia explains. “All my family members have attempted to emulate nature in their practices. We’re going to serve squash and root vegetables in the wintertime, because that’s what nature in the inland states says you’re supposed to eat. When you’re cold, your body craves different food.”
To highlight the stars of winter cuisine, Cynthia has initiated a weekly plated special at the grill—each one a hot dish that’s completely off the menu. As one example, she describes mouth-watering meatballs filled with James Ranch ricotta, served with house-made pasta.
“I have talented cooks and chefs,” she says. “They want to have fun with it.”
The secrets of the James Ranch Grill’s success are hardly secret at all. Locals know that the grill sources meat and produce from the working ranch. It’s truly a family affair: Dave and Kay still run the ranch along with daughter Jen and son-in-law Joe, who also tend the gardens. Sister Julie and her husband, John, manage the laying hens and the on-site tree farm, and Julie also runs the James Ranch Market. Younger brother Dan and his wife, Becca, are cheese-makers. And Cynthia and Robert are the reluctant restaurateurs.
What doesn’t come from the ranch, Cynthia sources locally as much as possible—and as organic as possible. “We buy from ten different farmers,” she says. “We’re supporting a community of families, and we’re supporting the whole regenerative agricultural movement through living by example with our practices.”
With such quality ingredients at hand, she acknowledges the key to her success as owner/chef is just letting the fresh flavors shine. For instance, in the chopped kale salad with pecans, cranberries, and a fried egg on top, the star of the show is Dan’s Leyden cheese. In a classic James Ranch burger, the beef rises above the condiments.
“I enjoy people having a good food experience,” Cynthia says.
The grill’s classics are enhanced even more by their new digs. The restaurant is designed for more windows than wall space, and the cozy wood adds depth to the food’s home-cooked feel. When weather permits, there’s still outdoor seating, where in the summer the famed Burger and a Band music events will continue. But through the winter, the grill’s staff is stoked to serve hearty, conscientiously crafted meals to all—whether they’re venturing up from Durango or returning from a day skiing on the mountain.