The Balance of Art & Hospitality

Tucked away at the junction of the La Plata Canyon and the town of Hesperus- just east of Hesperus Ski Area and en route to any adventure in the Four Corners area – lays a hidden gem. So hidden, in fact, that if you’re not keeping your eyes peeled, you just might miss the unassuming, and seemingly vague sign, “Restaurant”. A unique placement for an even more unique establishment, the lush exterior is a far cry from its pristine and airy interior. Amidst the rolling hills and La Plata mountain range, it can only be described as an oasis.

When owners Barbara Helmer and Miguel Carrillo opened The Kennebec almost 20 years ago, an oasis is what they were hoping to create. And so, they did.

“I enjoy envisioning and manifesting ideas, and architecture has always been an area of interest to me,” shares Barbara. In regards to the type of architecture she and Miguel have implemented into the building, “I’ve spent a lot of time in Europe and loved the architecture there. That part [planning the architecture] is really fun because it doesn’t get eaten. You build things and they’re still there the next day. They stick around, so that part is really fun,” Helmer said.

While they share backgrounds and a love for cuisine, the duo has also found a shared affinity for renovation; and for years have been picking away at what used to be an old 1950’s restaurant and hotel. At a tax auction in 1999, Barbara and Miguel purchased the building and decided, soon after, to bulldoze almost everything to start from the ground up.

Since that time, this dynamic team have been working on it in bits and pieces. Luckily for Helmer, her background in architecture and love of creating what she says is “something a little more permanent than creating her famous baked goods,” has made this endeavor a wonderful labor of love.

“I enjoy envisioning and manifesting ideas and architecture has always been an area of interest to me.” – Hemler says explains.

dining hall set up

Thank goodness for that, too, because the European-style, stone building has so much to offer. Whether one is looking for the space to host a private party or event, or, if a cozy, intimate nook for a special night out is what you seek, The Kennebec has it all. Looking to host your wedding in this mountain oasis? The Kennebec is offering both large rooms to seat about 125-140 people, and a beautiful, open patio filled with impeccable, lush landscaping to really reflect that oasis feel.

For Barbara Helmer and Miguel Carrillo, the sky

is the limit; and their imaginations are always on the move.

While almost 18 years have passed since the purchase of The Kennebec, the restaurant’s true roots had begun to take form about 35 years earlier. In the heart of downtown Durango, at one of Durango’s original, local watering holes – Carver Brewing Company, Helmer’s history began. This spot, it seems, was a fortuitous trifecta in Durango’s history. This is where Barbara Helmer opened her first bakery, The Upper Crust, and shared space with the owner of Durango Coffee Company, Carl Rand.

Helmer’s bakery operated downtown for about three years before passing the reigns on to the Carver family. It was then that she moved her operation west, to The Kennebec.

Although Helmer still bakes a good deal – and is still known for her famous scones and addictive carrot cake – she also runs a full-service catering business while dabbling in the kitchen with partner Miguel Carrillo. Together, they create a full, European-Style menu for the restaurant.

The Kennebec’s bill of fare is chock-full of decedent and feel-good dishes that have both Mediterranean and Mexican feels with a touch of down home soul food. Specialties and favorites among guests are the fish dishes, which Carrillo personally and meticulously selects. If you’re not feeling pescatarian, worry not! The menu truly has something for everyone from pomegranate glazed duck to grilled rack of lamb, rigatoni Bolognese or cannelloni marinara, chicken pot pie or a mouth-watering rib eye.

Did I mention Mexican? I did. Every Tuesday at The Kennebec, Miguel Carrillo delivers a delectable Mexican menu; and these are some of Helmer’s favorites.

“Miguel is from Mexico City and he can create some really incredible Mexican dishes. So, every Tuesday night, we just let him run loose and he always makes about four to six really, delicious specials on top of the regular menu,” Helmer said.

Pair any dish from The Kennebec’s extensive menu with one of 250 choice wines, which Helmer lovingly selects herself. If the wine list appears a bit overwhelming, and it will, do not fear as Helmer offers her expertise in pairing selections. Though on Tuesday, one may opt for a Kennebec Gold Margarita or a Dos Equis lager.

In addition to the daily delights and Tuesday’s Mexican meals, The Kennebec offers a wonderful Sunday brunch menu throughout the summer months.

“The patio will fill up every week throughout the summer for Sunday brunches. People love coming back week after week, year after year,” Helmer said.

Helmer and Carrillo love seeing familiar faces on a regular basis and it’s no secret that the feeling is mutual. The duo has a relationship not only with their customers, but with neighbors, local farmers and ranchers. Barbara and Miguel try to source most of their menu as close to home as possible. Because of this, people keep coming back, again and again, for the undeniably fresh food and the endless ideas that make their way from concept, to menu to mouth!

“You build it and hope people come and they have, and they fill up the space. We enjoy what we do up here. I’m always thinking that I want to do more things.” Helmer said.

“We really try to do some different things up here because we’re not in town and it’s more of a destination location.”

“It just depends on the day—how tired I am or how energized I am I have plenty of other ideas of things I want to do and somedays I wonder what I’m thinking,” jokes Helmer.

Helmer is continually planning expansions; there are new rooms to add and the potential of further developing upon the Airbnb that currently exists on the property.

kennebeck table arrangement

“We really try to do some different things up here because we’re not in town and it’s more of a destination location.” – Helmer said

Casa Miccola at The Kennebec is a delightful and artfully decorated, private one bedroom, one bath apartment with views of the La Plata mountains. While guests of Casa Miccola are welcome to prepare their own meals in the apartment’s charming kitchen, The Kennebec is right there to sate your appetite and does provide its guests with a continental breakfast!

Barbara’s innovative, go-getter attitude is relentless, and she is always, at any one time, juggling. Between being a restaurateur and wine connoisseur, running a catering company, cooking, baking, landscaping and architecture, Barbara is a juggler extraordinaire. Yet, for someone who has spent her entire life in the restaurant industry, it runs deep in her roots and she couldn’t imagine anything different.

So, whether you’re already on vacation or just needing a change of scenery, travel 11.3 miles west of downtown Durango, my friend. There you will find the diamond in the rough, the oasis in the fields and don’t forget to keep your eyes peeled for the sign that reads “Restaurant”.

Story written by Jennaye Dirge | Photos provided by The Kennebec