Nobody goes to Vail, Colorado to eat. Of this I am certain. People go to Vail to whiz down the side of a mountain on a pair of fiberglass sticks. But eat they must, and dining is where the world-renowned ski resort starts to fall short.
I can't say that I've sampled every restaurant in the Vail Valley, but I've supped at many of the local favorites, as recommended to me by friends, concierges, Yelp, and locals who I've chatted up on the ski lift. I've eaten elk at Game Creek, cleansed my palate with grapefruit granita at Kelly Liken, and munched on stone oven pizza at La Bottega. I have gorged myself on gooey Raclette Matterhorn at Swiss Chalet and picked at salty sea bass at Up The Creek. I've gotten sick from butter-sodden lobster risotto at Sweet Basil and scarfed soggy après-ski nachos and beer at Los Amigos. I've noshed on disquieting pumpkin fritters at Bol and sampled a sloppy burger at Cinebistro. I've been around the mountain.
Over the years, the food that I've eaten in this part of Colorado has ranged from well-executed-but-dull to unapologetically mediocre to just-plain-carelessly-cooked. The predominant cuisine is what you might call "mountain chic." Variations on the theme include locally-inspired New American, 90's-era fusion, and classic Italian, with a smattering of hearty German and fussy, late-80s French thrown in for good measure. The dining rooms follow a clear theme (think Swiss chalet meets luxury hunting lodge). Open up most menus and you'll find the same gut-bustingly heavy fare.
In the entree section, you can depend on something along the lines of a rack and loin of Colorado lamb with a cherry demi-glace and truffled mashed potatoes, and a peppercorn-encrusted Ahi tuna with wonton crisps and wasabi mashed potatoes. Crème brulees, molten chocolate cakes, and seasonal strudels/streusels abound. Thanks to resort town economics (high rent + seasonal business + price insensitive diners = sky high prices), the whole affair can easily set you back $80 to $100 a head. Sigh.
I've come to terms with the fact that I'm not going to have a life-altering food experience in Vail. But the thing is -- it doesn't have to be this way. Here's something that you might not know about Vail, and that sets it apart from most ski towns the world over: much of the property surrounding the ski mountain is owned (and in some cases operated) by Vail Resorts Management Company (ticker: MTN). So what might look like a town is actually more like a large resort in disguise, subject to the overarching strategy and branding decisions of a corporate conglomerate. Vail Resorts may not be capable of making the local chef/restaurateur talent pool any better, but if they really wanted to attract dining concepts that would turn heads, they absolutely could.
I know it sounds heartless to suggest swapping local business for outside competition, but much of what's already moving into Vail Village doesn't exactly fit the "mom and pop" model anyway. Notable additions to the dining landscape this year included Flame, a steak joint in the new Four Seasons Resort, and Block 16, a "Napa-inspired" restaurant in the Sebastian hotel. Cinebistro (a luxury dinner theater chain) and Bol (a bowling-alley-cum-restaurant that looks very much like the lobby of a W hotel) are both located in the newly constructed Solaris complex, which basically amounts to an attractive strip mall in the center of Vail Village.
Meanwhile, the town is struggling for an identity. Vail is not the biggest ski resort in North America, it's not the most challenging mountain, the glitziest, nor the most convenient to major cities. But with the help of a little chef/restaurateur courtship and some favorable rent agreements, why can't Vail Resorts choose to transform it into the foodiest?
Below, a vision for how Vail Resorts could make it happen.
#1: Install a marquee operator for mountain concessions. Trade steam table pasta and soggy pizza for a fast food joint so popular that New Yorkers line up around the block at lunchtime: Danny Meyer's Shake Shack. Supplement the Shack's trademark tasty burger and fries with special ski-friendly items, like hearty chili and hot chocolate.
#2: Transform après-ski. Rather than sticking with the same tired Mexican fare at the base of the mountain, woo Jose Andres to open at outpost of Jaleo, his DC-based Spanish joint that's perennially mobbed at happy hour. Weary skiers could snack on pan con tomate and Jamon Iberico while sipping the best-ever sangria. Next, add in Daniel Boulud's DBGB, a brasserie offering burgers, sausages, and a wide selection of Colorado's excellent local beers.
#3: Rethink French and Italian. Offer an antidote to all the white tablecloths and stuffy, ancient decor. Keith McNally's bustling Balthazar can always be counted on for very decent steak frites and a large measure of classic cool. Mario Batali and Nancy Silverton's Pizzeria Mozza has managed to win over picky Angelinos with its seriously awesome wood-fired pizzas, and would become Vail's go-to destination for an upscale pie and a casual glass of wine.
#4: Diversify the offerings. Vail is in desperate need of good Asian food. A hot bowl of ramen would be an unbeatable end to a cold day on the mountain, so bring in Wagamama, the UK-based noodle joint just now making its first forays into the US market. Or, up the ante and convince David Chang to open a Momofuku Noodle Bar, which has the added benefit of a white-hot celebrity chef and legendary, addictive pork steamed buns.
#5: Court a destination restaurant. Anyplace that plays host to as many millionaires as Vail needs one incredible, worth-the-plane-ticket restaurant. Leave Joel Robuchon, Alain Ducasse, and Gordon Ramsay for the Europeans, and curry favor with the Dean of American fine dining, Thomas Keller. Persuade him to open a one-off concept, a la The French Laundry and Per Se, and watch foodies flock to Vail year-round.