Five decades in a mountain ski town is a long time for a business, especially for a restaurant.
The Left Bank celebrates its 50th anniversary this season. The French eatery opened up on Nov. 24, 1970 to then-owners Luc and Liz Meyer. The Meyer’s were not only new to Vail, but new to America. Liz had grown up in Europe and Africa and Luc was raised in France. They met in the Bahamas of all places, got married in the Virgin Islands and came to Colorado on the recommendation of a friend they met there.
“We came to Colorado and visited Steamboat, Aspen, Breckenridge, Crested Butte and nothing felt as right as Vail did to start a French restaurant,” Luc said.
Things moved fast for the Meyer’s once they got to Vail in September of 1970. The birth of their first son came a few weeks after their arrival and they signed a deal to open a new restaurant just weeks after that. Although Luc had a friend working with him as a chef at the beginning, that chef’s wife did not like it in Vail and they moved shortly after he started.
“Claude quit and I came home and told Liz, ‘Today, you start. You are in charge,’ and we had 107 dinners that night,” Luc said.
The Left Bank’s name is a nod to the Left Bank of the Seine River that flows through Paris and is known for its restaurants, boutiques, Musée d’Orsay and the Eiffel Tower. The menu back then featured classic French dishes like onion soup, escargot and coq au vin.
The couple worked hard and their efforts were recognized, especially once President Gerald R. Ford started coming to Vail for vacations in the 1970s.
“He always came to the Left Bank for his birthday on July 14. He liked the liver and the trout and he loved dessert, especially my homemade ice cream,” Luc said.
Not only would the president dine at the Left Bank but so would American politicians and foreign dignitaries like Henry Kissinger, Pierre Trudeau and Margaret Thatcher. Celebrities and world-class athletes came in as well. Robert Redford, Natalie Wood, Andy Warhol, John Denver, Bob Hope and the cast from “Charlie’s Angels” all have signed the guest book.
There were decades of success for the Meyer’s at the Left Bank, but eventually they knew they would want to pass it along to someone who could continue the legacy of this French restaurant in Vail. Jean Michel Chelain eventually became the perfect person to carry the torch.
Chelain, who grew up in the French Alps in Grenoble, France, started his 35-year culinary career in his teens and came to the states at age 26. He found Vail in late 1998 after being in Florida, California and the Midwest.
“I literally picked this place on a map,” Chelain said about coming to Vail. “I found out about the Left Bank two days before I was driving here.” The two Frenchmen bonded and Chelain landed his dream job.
“It was almost like an apprenticeship, working underneath Luc and Liz and learning the business and all the nuances that go with a restaurant, it was so valuable,” Chelain said.
“The restaurant was like Liz and Luc’s ’baby’ and they’d built it up to the point that it was not just about cooking food, it was also about being a good interpreter and to keep that legacy going for them,” Chelain said.
In order to maintain the tradition, Chelain also had to make it his own.
“There were big shoes to fill so the important thing when I took over was not to change everything. It was the Left Bank and that’s what we were going to do and little by little we would change a few things, reinvent and try to make it even better and try to appeal to the next generation,” Chelain said. “I’d start by doing specials and if people liked the dish, we’d put it on the menu.”
“We always had Black Angus beef before, but now I’ve added waygu New York strip, or waygu Beef Wellington from a filet, and I can tell you, that is a super popular dish now, the ‘waygu Wellington,’” Chelain said. “But, even though we add new things, we still carry out traditional French techniques in the kitchen.”
In 2014, Chelain did a complete renovation of the Left Bank’s decor and brought in world-renown interior designer Katia Bates of Innovative Creations in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Bates, an Italian native, was the designer for Versace’s mansion in 2000 and in 2004. Bates was able to update the Left Bank and give it a brand new, light, fresh look with the use of blue hues and white leather and iron chandeliers with tiered glass and crystal drops.
The wine cellar is prominently showcased in the dining room behind large glass doors and glass walls. The artwork exhibits an airy feeling and the deep blue velvet and leather detail on the booths and pillows brings in a cozy yet chic feel. The Left Bank’s updated look is in a class of its own in the Vail restaurant scene.
In addition to updating the restaurant and evolving the menu over the past 15 years, Chelain is also looking to the future. He wants more people to enjoy the Left Bank not only by dining in, but also by being able to bring a taste of the Left Bank home. Window by Left Bank is Chelain’s latest concept.
Window by Left Bank is a collection of ready-made menu items including the Left Bank’s legendary French onion soup and tomato soup. You can build the perfect meal by adding other favorites like escargot bourguignon in the shell or prime osetra caviar. There are also ready-made entrées that you can finish at home. Impress your dinner guests with Iberico bellota marinated pork lion or duck leg confit sous vide. You don’t have to let them know that chef Chelain did all the work.
Chelain, who is barely 50 years old himself, is still a bit in awe of this banner year for the Vail landmark.
“The Left Bank definitely didn’t achieve the 50-year mark alone. There have been many people involved over the decades. Tremendous dedication and understanding have gone into what this restaurant is all about. It’s the history, the quality and the special feeling people have the moment they dine with us. Our goal is to maintain the legacy while raising the bar of excellence in the 21st century,” Chelain said.
Left Bank is located on Gore Creek Drive in Vail. Visit www.leftbankvail.com for more information about the restaurant.