Food tourism is growing business in the Vail Valley
High school students respectfully salivate over desserts at The Rose in The Riverwalk at Edwards. Long-married couples on date nights and tired Riverwalk employees struggle to decide between flourless chocolate cake, fresh-berry cheesecake and French macaroons. A trendy waitress serves a generous slice of spring green pistachio cake to mustachioed hipsters.
The Rose restaurant and bar is among a number of restaurants in the Vail Valley that are mastering the impossible combination of boasting a casual environment, offering reasonable prices and, of course, turning out excellent food and drink. They join other restaurants positioning as cutting-edge, hoping to become destinations in their own right, just as much as the area’s famous mountains or resorts. We took a look at just how up-and-coming local restaurants and talented chefs are working to make that happen.
A dining experience
Restaurant owners are taking cues from international food and decor trends, modernizing the dining experience in and around the valley. The Rose, for example, is draped in bohemian, rustic charm. On the other end of the spectrum, Mountain Standard rocks a masculine, butcher-shop feel. The details of evocative atmospheres, rather than strictly elegant European spaces, suggests a split from the fine-dining and Alps-inspired themes that have made valley restaurants popular.
Boxcar Restaurant is another example of restaurants that provide unique fare. It features an open kitchen designed so that chefs and waiters can more easily “interact with our community and make sure they are enjoying the experience as much as we are enjoying our experience,” said Cara Luff, chef and co-owner of Boxcar, along with Hunter Chamnes.
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While Luff admits that mid-valley restaurants are not yet tourist destinations, she thinks they eventually will be.
“We are doing everything in our power to draw attention to the food in the valley, so I hope people start to see it as a dining destination. I believe it will take time, but I can see it in the future,” she said.
Matthew Timmerman owns and guides Vail Valley Food Tours, a service that highlights the valley’s top restaurants and breweries. Visiting locations like Terra Bistro, La Tour and La Bottega, Timmerman has the opportunity to expose guests to some of the finest food in the valley.
He says that while visitors are not drawn to the valley strictly for restaurants, Vail already has garnered a name for itself as a place for fine dining.
“All of the food and wine events … bring in guests to enjoy food from our chefs as well as the national names that get invited,” he said, “The fact that we have probably more award-winning chefs per capita than many cities is not a fact many (guests) know about until they arrive.”
Tourists also bring fresh ideas.
“We are right on the heels of Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins, so we have all the inspiration to bring food to the next level here,” Luff added
Food tourism is a newer trend that is becoming an increasingly bigger piece of the tourism market, says Timmerman.
“With all of the Food Network shows about travel and food, people have become inspired to incorporate more of that culture into their itineraries,” he said.
Many chefs are paying attention to this trend, including Luff at Boxcar.
“We are tucked back in a corner, so getting people in the door can be a challenge sometimes. But once they arrive, the food, ambiance and staff keep them coming back,” she said.
Before moving to Avon, Luff worked with co-owner Chamnes in Seattle. She followed his family to Colorado after they tempted her “with the beautiful landscape and opportunity to do something original with food and an empty canvas of a restaurant.” Luff and Chamnes worked most of their culinary careers in fine dining. She says that they wanted to bring that to Boxcar, but they also wanted to bring the casual aspect to the space as well.
Taking cues from culinary classics, they blend contemporary and modern, tempting locals and visitors with comfortable, worldly elegance.
Luff says that Boxcar is trending toward classics, but putting a twist on them with modern cooking techniques and innovative mixology with cocktails.
Their chicken noodle soup is one such dish, served with agnolotti and lemongrass chicken consomme poured at the table.
“We make the chicken broth my mom would make,” Luff said. Then they add interesting twists like lemongrass and lime leaf.
Timmerman observes during his food tours that most of the area chefs look at the food trends of the world and incorporate them into their menus.
This contrast of well-prepared food with contemporary twists is how some local restaurants hope to achieve destination status. Calorie loading after a day of hiking, fishing or skiing is becoming infinitely more interesting as restaurant owners and chefs research and embrace global dining trends.
But fear not, wiener schnitzel lovers. Iconic Vail dishes are here to stay. While the Vail Valley is undoubtedly steering toward trendier cuisine, Timmerman observes that Vail also has a good number of restaurants that have been open for upwards of 40 years.
“They might not be innovating, but what they are doing has got to be good to last that long,” he said.
So snag reservations at some of the best local restaurants to see how chefs are enticing visitors to the valley, and experience food trends from around the world.