Vail’s Little Diner with a big taste |

Vail’s Little Diner with a big taste

Charlie Owen
Vail, CO, Colorado
HL Little Diner 4 DT 5-16-08

You can tell Brian Little is a food guy. He once took a road trip across America just to eat at different restaurants. Along the way he kept mental notes, picking out foods and flavors he wanted to incorporate into his menu, should he ever own a restaurant.

Now Little, along with his fiance Peggy Rende (she’ll become a Little in October), owns The Little Diner, named for obvious reasons. The couple have complete creative control over the menu, just the way they like it.

“I didn’t want to have to answer to anybody,” Little said.

Throughout his career in the restaurant business, Little said he’s done it all ” everything from washing dishes to being a private chef. He’s worked in fine dining establishments and grease pits and everything in between.

“I like diner food the best,” Little said.

So he stuck with his passion for sandwiches, breakfast platters and burgers, bringing a little bit of everywhere he’s lived or visited to the game.

On a Wednesday, Marian Phelps sat in The Little Diner waiting for her order while on break from her job at the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District. The first time she ate there the food impressed her, she said. She ordered the German pancake ($8.95) and said it was the best thing she’s ever tasted.

“It was over the top in a delicious way,” agreed Meaghan Long, Phelps’ co-worker.

Rende joked about the dish ” a cross between a crepe and a custard covered with apples, smoked bacon and powdered sugar ” saying that it’s very hard to describe, but tastes delicious. Little imported the recipe from Pennsylvania; it’s one of many regional dishes on his menu.

Kevin Aoki dined with Long and Phelps.

“I had the corned beef hash ($10.95) and it was the best corned beef hash I’ve ever had,” Aoki said. “The only downside was that I left hungry because Marian and Meaghan ate all my food.”

Cincinnati Chili is another Midwest favorite that isn’t often found on Colorado menus. At The Little Diner it’s served up on a plate of pasta ($9.95) and can be topped with cheese and onions for a few extra bucks. It has a tangy, almost sweet taste to it.

There’s also Chicago-style hot dogs ($5) and the more-familiar breakfast burrito ($6.95).

The Little Diner replaced D.J. McAdams ” a long-time local favorite ” at West Lionshead Circle almost two month ago. Rende said they’ve struggled because of their off-season opening, remodeling costs and the nearby construction, yet she and Little remain optimistic about a summertime and ski-season surge. They serve breakfast all day and begin serving lunch tomorrow, with a full menu of original entrees, or what Rende describes as “comfort food done well.”

Little believes that the valley is short on restaurants for the average guy, places where customers can get quality food at reasonable prices. He hopes to fill that gap by keeping prices affordable and using as many fresh ingredients as possible. Little and Rende make most of the menu items from scratch, something they take great pride in.

Items such as biscuits, gravy and sauces are made using family recipes ” recipes so secret Little will often stay overnight and prepare them himself to avoid revealing them to his staff.

When somebody asks Little what his favorite menu item is, he responds “all of them. These are all my recipes, I make and eat all these recipes.”

The diner itself is little, housing only 16 stools and a horseshoe counter to accommodate patrons. All the cooking is done front and center behind the counter where customers can watch the preparation. At any given moment Little can be seen flipping eggs, mixing up sauces and sprinkling spices on hot dishes.

“It takes a little longer because everything is made from scratch, but it’s worth it,” said Phelps, as she waited for her food. According to her, no matter what you get, you’ll leave with “order envy” when you see the food sitting in front of other customers.

During the ski season, the two plan on staying open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But until then they just hope that satisfied customers will tell their friends, helping the diner build a good reputation. In the meantime, the two are just happy to have their own joint.

“I know that what I’m serving is the best. It’s really going to be tasty. I know if I recommend something, it is going to be good, and if it’s not good, I go back and yell at him,” Rende said, smiling.

High Life writer Charlie Owen can be reached at 970-748-2939 or

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