Born From the Influence of Celebrity Chef Kelly Liken, a Vail Wine Bar Thrives
Samantha Biszantz remembers the trepidation she felt on the day when she and her coworker, sommelier Jeremy Campbell, walked into the back office at Restaurant Kelly Liken and broke the news that they planned to quit and open a high-end wine bar in Vail Village. Turns out, Vail’s celebrity restaurateur had a bombshell of her own.
“Kelly had been nothing but good to us, and we wanted to be very up front with her,” recalls Biszantz, a San Diego native who had worked as Liken’s hostess and general manager for four years. “She said, ‘Oh my gosh, I am so happy to know that because I’m selling the restaurant!’ Jeremy and I had to keep her secret for two months until the deal went through. That definitely pushed us more to do our own thing.”
And that they did. After Liken’s namesake restaurant plated its final meal, Biszantz and Campbell, no longer coworkers, became business partners—and, some might say, visionaries.
First, they articulated their concept.
“At Kelly Liken, we started seeing a little crowd of locals come into the bar, and we noticed that there was a trend: even ski instructors wanted a place to go to and get a good manhattan that wasn’t totally crazy,” says Biszantz, who studied culinary management at San Francisco’s Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. “The nicer bars I want to go to are all in fine-dining restaurants or in hotels.”
That would be their niche.
“Vail has great restaurants and great ski bars and great hotel bars, but what it doesn’t have is a great fine-dining bar with great selections of wine paired with great selections of food,” adds Campbell, a native of Portland who wears a coveted Advanced Sommelier pin from the Court of Master Sommeliers on the lapel of his blazer. “We wanted to create something unique: a fine-dining bar.”
They called it Root & Flower, a biodynamic farming term for the opposite ends of the flavor spectrum: bitter and sweet.
Recruiting a team of Kelly Liken veterans (including chef de cuisine Matt Limbaugh and head bartender Bobby L’Heureux), they settled on a venue (a vacant Wall Street storefront) and hired Matt Hansen of ECE Design/Build to oversee the build-out, asking him to transform the former ski rental shop into a bar like no other in Vail. Hansen, friends with the winemaker at Napa Valley’s Mayacamas Vineyards, started by accenting the salvaged brick walls with oak staves from chardonnay barrels, then installed a hand-hewn oak bar and backlit frosted glass shelves displaying a half-dozen different types of crystal stemware and decanters. Four-top tables with leather director’s chairs filled the floor, save for a cozy nook beneath the picture windows fronting Wall Street where friends could gather, sip wine, and people-watch.
Meanwhile, Campbell curated a wine menu of more than 40 selections grouped into eight tasting themes, from “Elegance & Grace” to “Jam & Spice” (six-ounce pours priced from $6 to $28). The drinks, in turn, could be paired with small plates by chef Matt Limbaugh: marinated Castelvetrano olives and Colorado feta; artisan cheeses of cow’s, goat’s, and sheep’s milk; salumi and house-pickled butternut squash; roasted winter vegetable soup; and panini of slow-cooked pork loin and shaved ham served with red-cabbage chowchow—even a selection of bourbon salted caramels. As for bourbon, L’Heureux would fortify his manhattans not with pedestrian Maker’s Mark but with Woodford Reserve, a higher-quality Kentucky spirit produced at a lesser-known nearby craft distillery, and would pour fingers of more than 30 different varieties of bourbon and whiskey.
From the moment the doors first opened in November 2015, most of the stools, chairs, and nooks have been occupied by skiers in unbuckled boots sipping wine and slurping soup until 7 or 8 p.m. Then there’s a lull, during which Root & Flower morphs into more of a locals’ bar scene, with regulars and hotel guests gathered over cocktails around the bar. Just after midnight, the vibe shifts again: the volume lowers as line cooks, bartenders, and servers from Yama, Sweet Basil, and Matsuhisa file in to trade details about their days over pinot noir and 12-year-old amontillado.
“It’s interesting,” says Biszantz. “People who just got off a crazy shift and don’t want to walk into the Shakedown Bar for more of the same now have somewhere to go to decompress with a good glass of wine. I know the tourists here appreciate high-level food and service, but I don’t know if they realize how passionate so many people who work in this town are about good food and wine. I think it’s cool.”
And good for Vail.