The Minturn Country Club turns 25 this month
Vail, CO, Colorado
MINTURN ” The first time the Country Club offered $1.99 night the then 50-seat restaurant fed 150 people. On the next $1.99 night, in November before ski season, the line was out the door, with some people waiting for nearly two hours. Three hundred people cycled through the small restaurant before they locked the doors for the night. The restaurant, a Minturn landmark and valley institution, celebrates 25 years in business next month, but Minturn Country Club co-owner Tom Ricci still remembers those first deal nights clearly.
“We were slammed. There were only 50 or 60 restaurants in the valley back then and we were a really inexpensive place to eat. I mean $5.95 for a steak was pretty cheap,” Ricci said.
It was 1982 the year the restaurant opened, and the cook-your-own concept that has distunguished the restaurant over the years was new to the valley, if not the country.
“My old partner Willy Welsh, saw this concept back in the ’70s in Australia,” Ricci said.
Though Welsh, Tom’s partner in a deli in Lionshead, left town, Ricci and Joe Honnessy ran with the idea and opened the Minturn Country Club.
“When we first opened, we had no fryer and nothing came from the kitchen. We did baked potatos, corn on the grill, everything on the grill,” Ricci said.
There weren’t any appetizers or dessert offerings because in order to make a profit, they had to turn the tables over a few times each night. The original butchers case offerings were quite simple: $5.95 8-ounce NY strips and sirloins, $7.95 12-ounce NY strips and sirloins, $5.95 terriyaki chicken breasts, $5.95 steak kabobs. The sides ” baked potatos, baked beans, rice pilaf and corn on the cob ” all cost $1.50. The one slightly obscure entree was shark for $5.95, which was extremely popular, Ricci said.
“It was like the poor man’s swordfish, and we sold tons of it. It became so popular other restaurants put it on the menu,” Ricci said.
“We’re always ahead of the curve with unique proteins,” Ricci’s son T.J. added, referencing the addition of Kobe beef to the menu three years ago.
Some of T.J.’s earliest memories of the restaurant include bussing tables at the restuarant while his mother waited on customers. Not much has changed for T.J., who has managed the restaurant for the past seven years.
“I’ve pretty much worked here my entire life,” T.J. said, grinning.
When Randy Milhoan first heard about the restaurant’s do-it-yourself methods, he was skeptical.
“I thought, these guys are crazy. Who wants to cook their own steak?” Milhoan said.
Well, for starters, he does, Milhoan said.
Milhoan, a Minturn resident and a local artist, has been the Country Club’s neighbor for nearly 20 years now. Many nights he sidles up to the bar for a beer after work and when friends come to town, he takes them to the steakhouse for dinner because it’s “different and friendly.” Gathering with people at the grill creates a feeling of community and striking up a conversation with the person next to you is a good way to meet people, Milhoan said, but the best part is there are no surprises. Though the restaurant has gone through three expansions (it now seats 150 people), various remodels, and the “jug”-style wine offering has been expanded to an extensive wine menu, you always know what you’re going to get with the Minturn Country Club.
“It’s been a constant in a changing valley,” Milhoan said.
And really there aren’t many people that balk at the “cook your own” concept ” T.J. said, there’s only about 10 or so people a year that even mention it. That’s because people generally know what they’re getting into with a meal at the Country Club, T.J. said, and more than that, that’s why they come in the first place.
“Folks will only be in town for a week and they’ll come in here three times,” T.J. said.
Some of the larger, wealthy families from Mexico and Venezuela are second and third generation Country Club diners ” “Their children’s children are eating here now,” T.J. said.
It’s not only the tourists that consider the Country Club a must-eat affair ” lifelong Minturn resident Donna Chavez has been grilling steaks at the restaurant since the beginning ” as does her parents, her children and now, her grandchildren.
“Four generations,” Chavez said proudly. “They treat us like long-lost family.”
Over the years, birthdays, anniversaries and accomplishments have all been celebrated at the Minturn Country Club, Chavez said.
“We try to make it down there at least once or twice a month to have a steak and chat with them.” she said.
The restuarant’s secret to success is in the niche it created and has since filled, said local resident Reid Griebling. “As the cliche goes, every party starts and ends in the kitchen. The beauty at the Country Club is you don’t have to clean up.”
Griebling grew up with T.J. and worked at the restuarant for six years. He still lends a hand during busy holidays.
“I call myself the head professional at the Minturn Country Club,” he said. “It throws people for a loop.”
Caramie Schnell can be reached at 748-2984 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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