EAGLE COUNTY — “Outside” and “outdoors” are funny words, when you think about them. To identify the natural world, instead of saying what it is, these words say it’s where it’s not using man-made structures as the point of reference. Maybe that’s why, in this country, when we want to convey the distinct pleasure of dining in the open, we choose the Italian “al fresco” or the French “en plein air” instead.
Not only are both more precise in their meaning (in fresh air), they also do a much better job of describing the vibrant experience of sitting in the world, absorbing the sights, sounds, smells, feel and flavor with all of our senses.
But whatever we call it, this is the time of year when we start to yearn to relax in the outside world and literally absorb its beauty. You can see it on the mountains themselves — from Two Elk to Talons, by mid-day, the decks are filled with skiers in pause mode. Stripped of helmets and jackets, they sit back in the deep chairs, warming themselves in the spring sunshine like human iPhones recharging their batteries. And at the mountain bases and nearby villages, restaurant patios beckon invitingly, coaxing us to relax, replenish and make the day last just a little bit longer.
Whether stopping for lunch or winding down the day for apres, the patio at Vail’s Larkspur restaurant, steps away from Chair 6 on Golden Peak, offers an accessible, casually elegant al fresco dining experience.
Fresh air and fresh food
“The beauty of eating outside is that people are willing to linger,” said Thomas Salamunovich, Larkspur owner and executive chef. “And the nature of Larkspur’s patio chairs is that they have comfortable arms that go past dining and into lounging, so you can celebrate a repose while watching people riding up and skiing down the mountain, laughing and gathering at the base.
“It’s no different than the day at the beach — everyone’s doing the same thing. You’re relaxed and feeling life as it’s moving around you: ‘I’m part of this, but I’m stepping out of it for now to just observe.’ And of course, food tastes better when you eat it outside — it came from outside, after all. And when you’re outside eating a piece of asparagus, on some level, you remember that. Absorbing the warm sunshine connects you to spring, when food is blooming, when we’re coming to life, when we’re renewed. And somehow, when we’re eating outside, with our hands sharing food comes more naturally, too. It’s just beautiful to see.
Perfect people watching
In the center of Vail Village — a half-step back into the real world — the patio at Pepi’s Restaurant offers another perspective for the outdoor diner. With the mountain in the distance, what you watch as you relax on the sunny patio is a different coming and going: of people walking, not skiing. With their gear on their shoulders, either heading from or back to their cars and buses; or in their street clothes, holding hands, strolling with dogs and children. Some may be seeing the mountain for the first time, others may be wrapping up their 75th day of the season.
“The best part about eating outside is ... that while you’re people watching, you’re getting a suntan, too,” said Kira Cameron, Pepi’s restaurant and bar manager. “It’s just fun to hang out. It’s mellow out there.”
And with every bite of Pepi’s classic smoked brats or burgers, the scenery changes again, a new story emerges. Every sip of ice cold pilsner or IPA tastes slightly different with the changing direction of the breeze or position of sun in the sky.
Where the locals lounge
But of course the pleasures of outdoor dining don’t have to involve views of ski mountains or skiers. And to prove that, all one has to do is head a little further west to Edwards’ Eat! Drink! cafe, where the charming sidewalk patio offers an opportunity to enjoy sophisticated bistro fare — flatbreads, bruschettas, artisan cheeses and fine wines — while watching the animated daily activity of the local town.
It’s the same warm sun and gentle breeze, with an entirely different landscape and context of what it feels like to be in a beautiful mountain setting in the springtime — eating delicious food that is even more delicious because it’s being enjoyed al fresco/en plein air/outside.
Madeleine Berenson is a freelance writer contracted by Larkspur Restaurant. Larkspur has been serving American classics with a fresh interpretation since 1999. Visit www.larkspurvail.com for more information.