Once the world shifted into pandemic mode, gourmands seemed to crave their favorite comfort food more than ever. “One woman was actually in tears because we weren’t offering our chicken paillard to go,” recalls Lourdes Ferzacca, who co-owns Vail Village’s iconic La Tour Restaurant with her husband, Executive Chef Paul Ferzacca.
After the pandemic put an early end to the ski season last spring and Vail Village emptied into a ghost town, the Ferzaccas created a full menu of finish-at-home meals—three courses the couple personally delivered to local doorsteps, with zero contact, for as little as $14 per entrée—not realizing how much work it would take to pivot from dine-in to takeaway service, or how many of their longtime customers would appreciate the effort. “It was like starting up a whole new business—it’s crazy,” recalls Chef Paul, who notes that the restaurant continues to offer a to-go menu with matching wines by request. “But people have been extremely grateful.”
As Covid cases ebbed over the summer and the county relaxed its public health order to allow restaurants to reopen dining rooms at limited capacity, the Ferzaccas moved La Tour’s tables outside. In doing so, they joined restaurateurs around the valley and nationwide in expanding their businesses onto sidewalks, patios, and streets, creating outdoor eating annexes that maximized ambience while minimizing the risk of virus transmission for both patrons and staff.
Now that winter is here and the virus is still among us—and Vail Mountain has reopened for an anxious and uncertain pandemic-modified ski season—the Ferzaccas have created a magical new sur place setting to accommodate diners who still feel safer eating outdoors: eight individual glass atriums situated just outside the restaurant’s threshold on East Meadow Drive, where parties of four can sate themselves with flaming crème brûlée and other delights while envious skiers clump by and flakes fall from the sky. “They let people feel like they’re part of the restaurant, but in a safe place that sets them apart,” says Lourdes. “And, they’re elegant.”
Dubbed the “Crystal Cabins,” La Tour’s glass dining pods are lavishly decorated with curtains, carpet, multisource lighting (even the tabletops emit a soft glow), and super-soft fur throws. “You get that ‘wow!’ effect when you walk in, so that you forget you’re living in Covid,” Lourdes says. Crystal Cabin diners choose between two tasting menus (one with five courses, the other with nine) attended by a retinue of servers and runners, hospitality superheroes appropriately attired not just with face masks but some with sumptuous capes for warmth. Given the demand and limited availability, reservations (latour-vail.com) are a must for the Crystal Cabins’ three nightly seatings.
In fact, making reservations weeks or months in advance has become de rigueur at most valley restaurants. Many, like La Tour, have pivoted hard to provide pandemic-friendly options for private dining. In Vail Village, the Sonnenalp Hotel debuted Allgäu (sonnenalp.com/private-dining), an exclusive 24-seat dining salon serving European specialties (such as Dover sole and chateaubriand) from the Ludwig’s dinner menu. At Leonora, The Sebastian Vail’s signature restaurant (thesebastianvail.com/experience/leonora), a private dining room accommodates up to 10 diners with elevated cuisine from the Alps, the Pyrenees, and the Rockies.
Elsewhere in Vail Village, five restaurants that can’t create their own private hideaways have opened tented and heated outdoor dining rooms with socially distanced tables. The tents were provided by the Town of Vail, which also funded the construction of several warming domes, igloo-shaped tents equipped with picnic tables scattered throughout the village’s pedestrian zone that provide a respite for guests awaiting a dinner reservation or those who can’t wait to get home to tuck into take-out meals. Occupancy is first-come, first-served, and attendants sanitize the igloos regularly.
“We understand that with Covid, there’s additional need for places where small groups can get out of the elements,” says Mia Vlaar, economic development director for the Town of Vail, which has committed $2.5 million to a variety of pandemic relief programs, including the restaurant tents and warming igloos.
Downvalley, restaurateurs without the benefit of such public resources are bootstrapping their own pandemic-friendly outdoor dining alternatives. In Edwards, Casey Glowacki, owner of The Drunken Goat (drunkengoatco.com), erected a winterized 15’x15’ clear plastic tent on a portion of the bistro’s patio at Edwards Corner to shelter five socially distanced tables—or a private cocktail party with passed hors d’oeuvres, cheese/charcuterie boards, and tastings from its exceptional cellar. Just before Christmas, as an alternative to its pandemic-friendly curbside pickup service, Avon’s Vin48 (vin48.com) plans to debut four heated and winterized canvas dining yurts on the wine bar’s patio that seat parties of four (as with La Tour’s Crystal Cabins, reservations are a must).
Not to be outdone, Beaver Creek’s Splendido at the Chateau (splendidorestaurant.com/yurt-dining) offers a not-exactly-roughing-it private dining experience on its patio in four deluxe yurts dubbed “Winter Wonderland Yurtopia.” The sheltered spaces are rented for the evening (for a food and beverage minimum starting at $1,000) and feature a multicourse tasting menu, with wine pairings, by Executive Chef Brian Ackerman. That may seem like a lot to invest on a night out, but consider the impact that months of public health–mandated dining room closures and capacity restrictions have had on the bottom line of an industry that even before the pandemic was already operating on the thinnest of margins.
“This is a lot to endure,” says Vin48 co-owner Collin Baugh, who considers restaurants, as service providers, to be as essential to the community during the pandemic as grocery stores and gas stations, perhaps even more so. “We may not be on the front lines, but we are the only businesses where people can come in, relax, and be taken care of.”
So whether you dine in or order out this winter, show your appreciation with an extra-generous tip. When you return to the valley next ski season, hopefully this tiresome pandemic will be forgotten, and your local culinary heroes will still be here to thank you with a meal to remember.