Boxcar Restaurant Imparts its Own Style on Old Favorites

A pair of Avon chefs import haute cuisine without the haughty.

Edited by Ted Katauskas October 10, 2016 Published in the Summer/Fall 2014 issue of Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine

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That framed dollar bill hanging behind the bar at Boxcar, arguably the best thing to happen to downtown Avon since white-striped crosswalks? (“But,” you say, “the crosswalks in Avon have no stripes ...”) It’s signed not by some local celebrity, like Mikaela Shiffrin, but by Sylvan Cote, a French-Canadian excavator who ducked in the front door when chefs and co-owners Hunter Chamness and Cara Luff were putting the finishing touches on their gastropub, a former bowling alley next door to Christy Sports beside the Union Pacific railroad tracks.

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Hunter Chamness- Chef/Owner

Cote took one look at the shiny bank of beer taps and wanted to know two things: (1) Would one of the dozen handles be devoted to Labatt’s? And (2) would they be serving poutine (cheese curds slathered with gravy, a Quebecois staple)? They answered yes to both, so Cote was first in line when Boxcar opened in April. And now he has a Thursday après special (pints of Labatt’s paired with poutine) created in his honor.

“Sylvan, he’s like the happiest guy in the whole world,” Chamness says. And at Boxcar, he’s now a fixture.

Speaking of fixtures, there’s a double-decker chandelier above the front dining room’s common table, a waist-high hearth in the front waiting area that doubles as a nosh bar, a reclaimed porcelain hospital washbasin in the hall outside the bathrooms, a glass rack fashioned from plumber’s pipe, and vintage schoolhouse lamps lining the walls of the back dining room. In that intimate space with its low-slung tin ceiling, a leather-upholstered banquette faces fourteen tables and a gleaming stainless steel kitchen, a hub of activity that precludes the need for the flat-panel distractions that have invaded so many dining rooms in the valley. It’s no accident that Boxcar exudes the vibe of a hip culinary oasis transported from Brooklyn or Seattle; its interior designer hails from the former, and its chefs both moved here from the latter.

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Cara Luff- Chef/Owner

“We chose Mary Catherine McGarvey out of Brooklyn, who mostly does residences, because we wanted to create something that would be different than what a Colorado decorator would choose,” explains Luff.

“The décor itself, we wanted it to have a little flair,” adds Chamness. “The thrift-store deer head with sunglasses says this place is owned by a couple of friends and not by a corporation. It’s quirky and fun.”

Luff and Chamness’s friendship dates to the years they shared working on the line at Crush, Jason Wilson’s temple of gastronomy in Seattle’s swank Madison Park neighborhood. They also shared impressive culinary pedigrees. Chamness, 34, trained at Le Cordon Bleu London, was a veteran of Denver wunderkind Frank Bonanno’s much-lauded Luca and Bones; Luff, 33, a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute, had spent four years in the kitchen of James Beard Award winner Eric Ziebold’s CityZen in Washington, DC. After Chamness followed his wife, who had landed a job as a physician’s assistant at the Steadman Clinic, to the Vail Valley, he decided that if he was going to continue to work as a chef, he wanted to cook with, and not for, someone else. And that someone else was Luff. They pooled their resources (financial and creative), signed the lease on the 3,200-square-foot space, and together opened Boxcar.

“All I’ve ever done is fine dining. I wanted to do something more approachable,” says Chamness.

Ditto Luff.

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The community table (foreground) encourages mingling; spiced chicharones paired with Goose Island’s Sofie saison

“This would be a place where I could cook in the style I’ve always dreamed of,” she says. “Casual and not intimidating, yet still putting in the time and effort to do everything from scratch, spending days here and at the end of the night seeing that someone had a beer and the chicharones, and that was enough.”

In addition to those fried pork rinds (a nod to Avon’s fantastic yet overlooked Taqueria No Se Hagan Bolas, where the chefs dined religiously while working on Boxcar), upgraded lowbrow staples on the Boxcar menu include gougères (cheese puffs filled with caramelized pear–chèvre mousse), pastrami (made in-house from lamb shoulder brined for a week then spiced, smoked, and roasted), chicken noodle soup (handmade agnolotti stuffed with parsnip puree in a consommé that requires four days to prepare), and the cheeseburger (a Lombardi Brothers patty made from rib-eye filet trimmings topped with a shallot-infused white cheddar reduction and plated with homemade pickles on Avon Bakery brioche).

And, of course, poutine, a.k.a. “classy cheesy fries”: house-made fresh mozzarella slathered in chicken gravy over hand-cut potatoes fried in beef tallow.

“I’d like to stay here for some time and create a consistent yet versatile menu for locals that keeps challenging people and their palates,” says Chamness. “Hopefully we’re creating a community here.”

“I’ve been living in big cities for fifteen years; I was ready for this, “ adds Luff. “I love the fact that there’s so much tourism here but you also have a small-town community feel, like a Canadian excavator bringing us food suggestions.”

And introducing Avon, via Boxcar, to poutine. Rumor has it Cote’s even working on those crosswalks.

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