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Potato-crusted trout at Restaurant Kelly Liken in Vail

The Vail Valley has earned a reputation for food as tantalizing as its snow—but with nary a drought in sight. It’s hard to go wrong at any valley venue, but should you have limited time to sample the fare, we tackled the gargantuan task of eating as many meals as possible to narrow the list to a handful of dishes that simply can’t miss. You’re welcome. Now tuck in.

In the Beginning...

Appetizers are like leadoff batters: good ones set the table for the power hitters. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be stars themselves, as ambitious local chefs remind us every day with these classic-to-creative plates.

Maryland Crab Cake The Gashouse, Edwards

If you’ve been to the Gashouse, you know about this crab cake. If you haven’t, maybe you’ve heard anyway. It looks like it’s on crab-cake steroids, for starters. And it tastes like they do on the Chesapeake Bay, where the most classic recipes always seem to let the jumbo lump meat shine on its own.

Calamari Ti Amo, Eagle-Vail

Tucked away in a one-story business complex in Eagle-Vail, Ti Amo has long been a locals’ hideout known for its mouthwatering calamari. It’s a well-earned reputation. Paper-thin fried spinach leaves lighten the dish overall, allowing the squid and a spicy homemade marinara to fully express their hearty selves.

Lobster Bisque

Lobster Bisque La Tour, Vail

A lot of people like a lot of things at La Tour, for good reason. The lobster bisque is a big fish in this already big pond. It’s rare for a restaurant to bring in live Maine lobsters for its bisque, then actually leave hunks of tail and claw meat bobbing in the bowl, as La Tour does. The only problem? One bowl will leave you wanting two.

Heirloom Tomato and Avocado Salad Terra Bistro, Vail

This salad aligns with Terra Bistro’s organic feel: fresh, creative, healthy, and aesthetically inclined. A carefully built layer of tomatoes and avocados camouflages a medley of preserved lemon, pine nuts, and cilantro. The roasted red pepper-poblano vinaigrette works to make the salad sing.

Fill Me Up...

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Playing outside in the Rocky Mountains makes people hungry—really hungry. Luckily, there is a way to treat that here.

Wiener Schnitzel Pepi’s, Vail

The fact that an Austrian named Helmut makes this schnitzel automatically elevates its legitimacy. So does the fact that it comes from Pepi’s, a Bridge Street institution if ever there were one. The veal itself is a healthy, well-seasoned portion. But it also plays a sentimental role, in addition to filling stomachs with good food, and there’s something to be said about that in this valley.

Colorado Lamb Sirloin Vista at Arrowhead, Arrowhead/Beaver Creek

A lot of Vail Valley restaurants make a good lamb, which is a tribute to both the meat and the world-class chefs who live here. But there's something about Vista at Arrowhead's preparation that produces a superlative succulence in this large cut of sirloin. This succulence is further heightened through butter poached Yukon potatoes, sautéed spinach, and cherry bourbon sauce. The dish is only available for dinner, so carpe diem rules apply. 

Seared Yellowfin Tuna Montauk, Lionshead

It’s rare to find a seafood dish—top-grade tuna overnighted from Honolulu, no less—that can fill you up like this famous yellowfin tuna plate. Delicately seared to preserve their tenderness, the tuna is piled over a large bed of fresh vegetables and Florida rock shrimp stir-fry. The dish is finished off with a zesty ginger-soy, and pickles ginger and wasabi. 

Braised Short Rib Up the Creek, Vail

Tender enough that you can leave the knife on the table, this short rib is as beloved for its own qualities as for the unfathomably rich bacon–smoked gouda mac and cheese it rests upon. As I sit here writing, it’s been three days since I consumed that mac and cheese, but my mouth is watering just picturing it—no joke. You can dip the short rib in a veal demi-glace straight from sauce heaven.

Tried and True...

Veal Scallopini

In a place with as much dining depth as the Vail Valley, it takes a special dish to attain celebrity status. The one common denominator, it turns out, is otherworldly taste. Trust us on these ones.

Dover Sole Meuniere Mirabelle, Beaver Creek

Twenty years ago, Belgian chef-owner Daniel Joly began importing Dover sole from Holland to the Vail Valley, inspiring a wave of followers along the way. He still doesn’t try to overprepare the “noble” meat, which remains the most popular plate here. Lightly pan-seared, the sole is served with a potato crust and baby spinach, then topped with citrus jus that threatens to melt your taste buds.

Steak Diane Russell’s, Vail

Few dishes bring as many gushing comments as Russell’s Steak Diane, served just on the other side of the covered bridge in Vail. One of the best comes from a mother of two, who says: “I’ve licked my plate after eating one.” It’s an 8-ounce, center-cut dry filet served over a tantalizing brandy cream sauce and complemented by scalloped potatoes layered with eggs and cheese. The recipe hasn’t changed for twenty years.

Veal Scallopini Juniper, Edwards

Among the many factors that separate good veal dishes from not-good veal dishes is portion size. Juniper does it right with its renowned scallopini. The process starts by pounding thin a huge slab of veal, then cooking it to a delectable tenderness on a flat top, and finally serving it over angel hair pasta with plump tomatoes, thick asparagus, chunks of mozzarella, and capers. It’s a seriously stimulating plate of food. 

Wild Game Burger Bully Ranch, Vail

Recently arrived executive chef Steve Topple has added a new classic to the locally adored Bully menu with this combined buffalo-elk burger. The thick, juicy meat is topped with a red-pepper aioli, pepper-jack cheese, and a napa cabbage slaw that includes carrots and red onions, giving the entire towering creation a fresh, zesty zing. It won’t be long before word gets out among the Bully’s loyal après crowd.

Up & Coming...

Crispy Shrimp & Calamari Maya, Avon

When famed chef Richard Sandoval opened Maya in avon, he created a Latin kitchen with some New Age takes on traditional dishes: the crispy shrimpy and calamari, which is crusted in adobo, and served with citrus cabbage slaw, and sweet sambal sauce. The dish pairs perfectly with any of the house-made margaritas and cocktails. 

Malfatti di Ricotta La Nonna, Vail

Once Luc and Liz Meyer (think Left Bank) met chef Simone Reatti and restaurateur Mira Hozzova it was a match made in Heaven. This perfect match created La Nonna, a refreshing take on traditional Italian food. With homemade pasta made daily (using flour from Ferrara, Italy), you can't go wrong with one of their signature pasta dishes. A favorite is the Malfatti di Ricotta. This dish of fresh spinach ricotta dumplings comes with local heirloom tomatoes, garden-fresh basil and stracciatella cheese.

Creative License...

Let’s be honest—nobody likes the same old everything, least of all chefs. And their affinity for fresh creations has always been to our benefit.

New Zealand Elk Splendido, Beaver Creek

Although sometimes overshadowed by some of its renowned menu brethren, there’s a reason Splendido’s New Zealand elk dish maintains its spot on the restaurant's roster. It's unique, for starters -- you'll be hard-pressed to find a comparable dish even in a world-class dinning area like the Vail Valley -- but also delightfully flavorful and filling, with surprisingly large portion sizes. Best of all, the dish is served with bacon, broccoli rabe, and cipollini onions. 

Bison Rib Eye Flame, Vail

When chef Jason Harrison left the Bellagio last year to take over at Flame, he brought his disdain for “boring” with him. It shows in this 12-ounce buffalo rib eye, which is dry-aged for twenty-one days, then cooked to succulent tenderness at 1,800 degrees, sliced, and topped by a sort of rogue-peppercorn black pepper relish whose ingredients include fermented black beans. The result is a steak experience unlike any other you’ll ever have.

Swiss Hot Dog The Blü Cow Café, Vail

Few local eateries are as iconic as this family establishment, which was founded in 1967 and still serves authentic Swiss hot dogs and the famous Mother Of All Soups. The all-natural pork-and-beef dogs -- heaven on a warm French baguette -- are topped with alfalfa sprouts and brown mustard and sprinkled with a secret spice. It's got the perfect bite for an everyman's masterpiece. 

Post Piste

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Smoked Corn Bisque 8100, Beaver Creek

There may be no smarter way to end a Beaver Creek powder day than this: Huddling around a fire outside 8100 while nipping a hot drink and scarfing down this unique type of soup, which features smoked paprika, quinoa crunch, and chive flower.

Hot Chicken Sandwich The Craftsman, Edwards

This gourmet sandwich soup quickly picked up a cult following, and for good reason. Their menu features an array of exciting dishes ranging from Korean style pork ribs and crispy brussels sprouts to a modern twist on a classic Cubano sandwich. A must try is the hot chicken sandwich; a sesame bun loaded with buttermilk fried chicken, cool ranch, avocado, bacon, and shredded lettuce. While satisfying all year long, the sandwich tastes ever better after a long day on the slopes. 

Snow Pig Pizza Vendetta’s, Vail

Few dishes have played a greater role in Vail’s skiing history than this meat-lover’s pizza, which has been baked in the heart of Vail Village for as long as most ski-bum memories are capable of recalling. It’s not the ingredients (Canadian bacon, pepperoni, and sausage) that set it apart so much as what the Snow Pig signifies: namely, face shots from first chair until your legs give out, followed by cold draft beers and deeply satisfying slices.

JB's Original Pulled Pork BBQ Platter Kirby Cosmo's, Minturn

Kirby Cosmo's remains a local stomping ground for many reasons: cold beer, warm plates, and a welcoming down-to-earth environment. This friendly environment is elevated with comfort food in the form of fresh Carolina-style BBQ. A local favorite after a long day on the slopes is the Pulled Pork BBQ Platter. This heapin' platter is served with homemade cornbread and two sides (try the Southern slaw or Jalapeño hush puppies). The BBQ spot's relaxed atmosphere in downtown Minturn perfectly suits this dish, which tastes even better after skiing the Minturn mile. 

Just Desserts...

There should be laws against food tasting this good. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Sticky Toffee Pudding Cake Sweet Basil, Vail

In the realm of famous desserts in Vail, this one probably still reigns as no. 1—and justifiably so. The English-style pudding cake is baked in an individual tin and served warm with Myers’s Rum toffee sauce and cool, thick whipped cream on top. Your highest expectations are still no match for the five minutes of utopia this preparation creates.

Chocolate Fondue Swiss Chalet, Vail

The Swiss Chalet’s European authenticity extends to its dessert fondue, which is a dish you save plenty of room for if you know what’s good for your taste buds. The nougat dark and hazelnut chocolates combine with raspberries, bananas, and strawberries to make for a meal-topper that tastes rich, smooth, and healthy.

Warm Flourless Chocolate Cake Juniper, Edwards

When considering this irresistible cake, it important to understand the pure magic behind the dish. The warm flourless chocolate cake is baked to perfection by Pastry Chef Charles Broschinsky (formerly of Sweet Basil and Mountain Standard). The cake is served with satisfying vanilla bean ice cream and topped with crunchy caramel popcorn. A perfect dessert for gluten-free and non gluten free diners alike. 

Special Treats

Make up an excuse; convince yourself it’s OK. Everyone deserves to be king for a day.

Breakfast Buffet Ludwig’s, Vail

To locals, this buffet needs no introduction. It’s a once-a-year treat for some; a routine indulgence for others; and a novelty discovered daily by guests of the Sonnenalp hotel. To give you an idea of the buffet’s world-class variety, here is what I had on a hungry January morning: homemade apricot and cherry danishes; perfectly crisped French toast; a made-to-order omelet with mushrooms, tomatoes, spinach, and cheddar; ultra-plump raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, kiwi, and grapefruit; eggs benedict with salmon; cured Italian meats; spinach quiche; and a double espresso. Bring your big-boy appetite.

Saffron Pasta with Truffles Left Bank, Vail

Perhaps not as widely known among the masses as other dishes featured here, Left Bank’s homemade saffron pasta with shaved white (September to December) and black (December to March) truffles is nonetheless revered by those in the know. Chef-owner Jean-Michel Chelain grew up eating this meal in the French Alps, and he still imports all of his truffles from the Perigord region in France and Alba, Italy. The flavor is unlike anything else you’ll taste, which is why it pays to stay in the loop on when it’s available.

Filet Mignon & Eggs Northside Kitchen, Avon

In addition to being everybody's favorite doughnut maker, the Northside Kitchen features an array of breakfast options that combine traditional plates with unique twists. To understand what this really means look no further than the filet mignon & egg plate. The plate includes a 6 oz. of filet mignon with three all-natural cage free eggs, toast, and hash browns. Dishes like this remind locals and tourists alike why Northside Kitchen is consistently a favorite for satisfying comfort food cravings. 

Beef Filet Game Creek, Vail

Located high on Vail Mountain, Game Creek offers three prix fixe meals to its guests (it's open to the public only for dinner), and it's no coincidence that the options all include the club's signature beef filet entrée. The filet is served in a shallot burgundy sauce, and is accompanied by purple and Yukon potatoes, broccolini, and cipollini onions.   

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