Words: Heidi White
Photos: Karen Scheffe
Are you looking for a impersonal, brand-oriented restaurant with an extensive menu of hard-to-pronounce exotic foods? Then Juniper Valley Ranch Dining Room does not fit that criteria. Situated 15 miles south of Colorado Springs on highway 115, Juniper Valley Ranch Dining Room lies serenely nestled amidst the dappled, rolling mountains of the picturesque stretch between Colorado Springs and Penrose. It’s a the perfect spot to crown a day’s visit to Happy Apple Farm or even Royal Gorge Bridge and Park. In addition to its scenic location, many features make Juniper Valley Ranch a unique and satisfying dining experience - from the family history to the homemade food.
One of the primary attractions of Juniper Valley Ranch is its rich family history. The restaurant began serving food in the summer of 1951. The founders were two sisters, Ethel Shirola and Evelyn Ellis, daughters of homesteaders Guy and Bessie Parker. On a warm summer night in 1951, Juniper Valley Ranch Dining Room opened its doors, and the sisters served their patrons dishes made with exactly the same scrumptious recipes that are served today. This remarkable family legacy serves more than a consistent menu - it anchors us in a time when tradition and relationship were the core tenants of life, contrasting today’s transient culture.
When the restaurant was firmly established in the community, the time came for Ethel and Evelyn to retire. The sisters looked no further than their own close family to keep the legacy of this home-grown restaurant alive. Today, Juniper Valley Ranch is owned by Greg and Tami Dickey. Greg - a soft-spoken, energetic man whose eyes light up when he speaks of the dining room’s history - is Ethel’s grandson. He inherited Juniper Valley Ranch Dining Room in 1983 when he was 18 years old.
“We still use my Great Aunt Evelyn’s original recipes,” he said. “My mom showed me how to make desserts. I’m not a cook.”
Other than a few additions and repairs, the restaurant looks the same today as it did in 1951. A white kiln-shaped fireplace graces the entryway. Guy Parker’s own oil paintings cover the place: some are straight-backed cowboys and fields of wildflowers, others are wild horses and the crags of the Rocky Mountains. The walls are a warm stucco and the ceiling is low, ribbed with rustic wooden beams. The dining space is divided into rooms, so guests settle into the nooks and crannies of a home. The salt and pepper shakers on the wooden tables are original; they have been seasoning folk’s food for more than 60 years. The family’s legacy indeed envelops every corner of Juniper Valley Ranch.
In addition to the warm and hospitable feel of a family home, guests to Juniper Valley Ranch will soon discover the second reason that the dining room has been a Colorado tradition for 64 years: The delicious food. Diners choose between either baked ham or fried chicken - or chicken fried steak on Friday nights. Dinner begins with a choice between curry consomme and cherry cider. The meat bursts with home-cooked flavor, like Sunday dinner at Grandma’s house. The cooks rice the potatoes instead of mashing them, making them almost impossibly fluffy, and the potatoes are served with rich gravy made every night from pan drippings. Okra casserole and creamy cole are a dining room staple. Don’t miss the homemade biscuits: Guests can enjoy them on their own or smothered in Greg’s famous homemade apple butter. The cook, Florence Straight, who is 87-years-old, has been baking these biscuits every day in the kitchen at Juniper Valley Ranch Dining Room for 15 years.
Afterward, dinner guests might feel they can’t eat another bite, but the desserts are worth sampling. The dining room purchases its ice cream, but makes everything else from scratch. The chocolate brownie sundae is an obvious choice - but don’t overlook the butterscotch sundae, which tastes rich and sweet. Peppermint ice cream and homemade peach or cherry cobblers round out the dessert menu.
If you’re eager to join the diners who’ve embraced Juniper Valley Ranch’s warm hospitality, rich history and home-cooked flavors, keep in mind its exclusive schedule. Dinner is served from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. The dining room opens its doors from April through November, and typically closes them right before Thanksgiving, so it’s always a good idea to check their website for availability. Also, be sure to stop by the ATM on your way to the historic eatery, because Juniper Valley Ranch is a cash only establishment.
In order to accommodate its loyal clientele, Juniper Valley Ranch hosts private parties during the months when it’s closed, especially over the holidays. Those who are looking for a memorable holiday event will find the cozy atmosphere, specialized customer service and comfort food an appealing option.
While the dining room will accommodate walk-ins, Greg encourages reservations.
“Most nights we’re full,” he said. “Some have asked why we don’t just expand, but…”
The four generations that still live on the homestead and work at the dining room want it to remain what it has always been: A family business.
Juniper Valley Ranch
South Hwy 115
Colorado Springs, CO 80926