Summer is the time for dining al fresco in the Vail Valley | VailDaily.com

Summer is the time for dining al fresco in the Vail Valley

Katie Coakley
Special to the Daily

It started with a plate of fresh heirloom tomatoes, their yellow, red, purple and orange jewel tones almost glowing in the late-evening light. Layered with mozzarella, drizzled with balsamic vinegar and basil oil and topped with a crunchy, vinegary giardiniera, these tomatoes were players in a beautiful Caprese salad at Elway's in Vail.

But as I later tried to describe the amazingness of this dish to a friend, I realized that it wasn't simply the ingredients and the composition that made it so memorable: It was also the location.

Elway's has a wonderful patio, tucked into what feels like a secret garden in Vail Village, surrounded by greenery and the whir of busy hummingbirds. A summer-only destination, it seems as if the location provides a secret sauce for the meal: a dash of gentle breeze, a soupcon of sunset.

These summer seasonings can be found all over the valley, from restaurants that revel in outdoor dining to special events that create unique opportunities for guests to envelop themselves in the outdoors. With a bit of creativity, you can even do it yourself.

Get on (the) deck

It's not truly summer until restaurants around the valley roll out their outdoor dining options. Patios that are normally covered in snow are now welcoming guests with open tables and cheerful umbrellas. Some decks are already famous, such as the riverside patio at Up the Creek in Vail or the why-don't-we-have-another deck at the Beaver Creek Chophouse. However, there are some other locations that are worth a visit this summer.

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Long a favorite destination for dinner, Mirabelle, located at the base of Beaver Creek, is now open for lunch. Chef-owner Daniel Joly and his wife, Nathalie, recently purchased the Mirabelle restaurant site, the oldest original homestead in Beaver Creek, from Vail Resorts. One of their first acts was the addition of summer lunch service on the deck on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

"It's truly a hidden gem — emphasis on 'hidden.' Lunch is served on a deck right on the creek," said Pat Peeples, who lives in Edwards. "Most people don't know there's A) a deck or B) a creek. It's a lovely, shady babbling brook that even longterm locals might not know is there. And the menu is every bit the exceptional quality of their dinners."

Lunch items include salads and entrees, such as the Colorado lamb burger or steelhead trout. The le patio lunch includes a choice of salad, entree and dessert for $32. Options change daily.

In the evening, Splendido at the Chateau Beaver Creek is known for its world-class cuisine and special-occasion ambiance. Now with longtime Splendido chef de cuisine Brian Ackerman at the helm as executive chef-owner, guests can enjoy creative menu options on the newly refurbished deck during dinner, served nightly, except for Mondays. One of the most picturesque in the valley, decorated with flowers and fresh herbs, the Splendido deck overlooks the Borders-Pines-Chateau Skiway, near Strawberry Park.

Ackerman is working with two farms on Colorado's Western Slope to procure the produce featured on the summer menu; he's also purchasing ingredients from the Edwards Farmers Market to create items on the ever-evolving blackboard bar menu. This blackboard menu is essentially "clean, simple food you can eat every night," Ackerman said. Continuing the practice, all of the herbs are grown in the on-site garden.

Mark your calendar

It seems the main focus of summer is squeezing it all in. Special events abound, many of which focus on food and showcase the short growing season in Colorado. These events highlight not only the chefs' talent, but also create a special opportunity to dine in some of Vail's most beautiful locations.

Every Sunday in the summer, the Vail Farmers' Market & Art Show draws hundreds of people to Vail Village to peruse the stalls, sample fresh produce and perhaps purchase a piece of art as a souvenir. To truly taste the bounty of the summer, though, a ticket to the Farm to Table Dinner is a must.

Featuring Vail chefs and food sourced from farmers at the market, there are three Farm to Table dinners scheduled this summer. The event on Monday featured special guest chefs from Vail's Mexican sister city, San Miguel de Allende; the remaining two dinners will take place on July 22 and Aug. 12 from 6 to 8 p.m. on West Meadow Drive in Vail Village. Tickets are $95 per person; please visit http://www.vailfarmersmarket.com for more details.

The Betty Ford Alpine Gardens are wonderful for wandering, but they're even nicer when you can sample creations from local chefs at the same time. Chefs in the Gardens, a special six-week summer program, takes place on Thursdays from noon to 1 p.m.

Featuring live cooking demonstrations from local chefs (the remaining weeks feature chefs from Green Elephant Juicery, The Fitz, La Tour and Elway's), attendees get to taste the finished dish after the demonstration and also take home the recipe for personal experimentation. The program is $5 per person and takes place at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater lobby next to the Gardens.

The Sonnenalp Hotel in Vail is home to a secret garden, an oasis where Gore Creek babbles by and the Gather in the Garden dinners occur. For one more evening this summer, Sept. 21, guests can enjoy a cocktail reception before sitting down for a multi-course dinner paired with wine in this bucolic location. For more information or to make reservations, call the Sonnenalp at 970-479-5429.

Pack a picnic

One of the highlights of the summer is the wide variety of programming that occurs at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater in Vail. From classical music to international dance stars to free Tuesday night concerts, there's always something happening at Ford Amphitheater, and there's no better way to enjoy it than spreading a blanket on the lawn and leaning back to enjoy the show. While there is food for sale at the amphitheater, guests are also allowed to bring food and commercially sealed nonalcoholic beverages into the venue.

You'll see all sorts of spreads at the Ford Amphitheater during the summer. From the easy — chips and salsa, hummus and veggies and fresh fruit — to the elaborate — hors d'oeuvres such as stuffed mushrooms and mini quiches, salads and even steaks— packing a picnic can be as time-intensive as you like. Just remember to leave the alcohol at home — there's plenty to be purchased at the show.

Just as summer is gone in what seems like mere moments, so are these opportunities to enjoy the seasoning that comes from outdoor eating in the summer season. Mark your calendars, loosen your belt and soak it all in.

Add a pinch of

panache

Having friends over to grill on the deck is fun and easy. While your friends aren’t picky, why not try these tips to make it an evening to remember?

Get creative with the menu. Burgers, brats and steaks are classic grilling fare. However, many foods lend themselves to the grill and produce an extraordinary meal. Try something new, such as pizza or oysters, for a main dish or different veggies such as avocado, okra or artichokes for a refreshing change.

• Presentation is everything. Paper plates and plastic silverware may make for quick and easy cleanup, but why not get out the tablecloth or place mats, dishes and real silverware for dinner? It may take a little bit longer to do the washing up, but avoiding a soggy plate fiasco is worth it.

Rethink your beverages. Yes, beer and barbecue go together like Forrest Gump and Jenny, but summer is a time for experimentation. Use fresh fruit juices, such as watermelon, or sparkling sodas to make cocktails, or try out a new style of beer, like a refreshing kolsch or wit, for the next get together.