This weekend kicks off the single busiest week of the ski season, Christmas to New Years.
For many travelers, eating and drinking are as big a part of the vacation experience as the skiing itself – after all, it is the only sport that has its own name for the culinary reward to a day on the slopes, après ski.
So for those of you who are headed to the mountains this holiday week, or the rest of the winter, this is my guide to the very best dining experiences at major resorts and ski towns around the country (and Canada). Unfortunately, since there is little snow to be had right now in most top ski destinations, dining might be even more important than ever this coming week.
One caveat: these recommendations are not for the weak of wallet. I love après ski burgers and wings as much as the next guy, but this is a list of the very best fine dining experiences snow country has to offer. These are aimed at the discerning traveler who would eat excellent meals on vacation to Paris or Rome or San Francisco or New York, and wants the same level on their ski vacation. With the exception of my insider picks at “Local Knowledge” below, these are not cheap. Also, since I only include restaurants of the caliber associated with the best big city dining, some resorts don’t make the cut at all. For instance, while Park City has three outstanding ski resorts and the best array of luxury lodging in the nation, and is the province of the very rich, it does not have a world-class restaurant – it is full of B+ dining. Likewise, almost all New England resorts (where I live) are bereft of notable finding experiences. I have been to just about every major ski resort town in the continental U.S. other than Taos, NM, so if you don’t see yours on this list, there is probably a reason.
Vail, CO: Thanks to non-stop upgrades and new openings the past two seasons, Vail tops my list with the most choices: Restaurant Kelly Liken is arguably the nation’s best ski resort eatery, upscale American fare utilizing ultra-fresh, ultra-local ingredients, like elk carpacchio, and more than five dozen wines by the glass. Flame fills a major ski resort voids: finally a great, high-end steakhouse without a chuck wagon theme. It’s in the new Four Seasons and a carnivore’s best ski country option – and it serves an unbelievable breakfast. Despite a bevy of newer chefs “borrowing” from his innovative Asian fusion tradition (with hints of South America), Nobu Matsuhisa of Nobu fame remains the nation’s most acclaimed purveyor of Japanese cuisine, and his brand new Matsuhisa is a welcome addition here given that he has had one in Aspen for years. The sushi is great, but you can get great sushi in a lot of places, so don’t miss his signature rock shrimp tempura and miso black cod. Another favorite of mine is the Game Creek Club (see “On Mountain Dining” below).
Aspen, CO: Vying with Kelly Liken (Vail) for best in the US is Montagna at the Little Nell, a boutique hotel with a reputation that seems impossible to live up to, yet it does. Outstanding for well over a decade, Montagna was one of the first to go the hardcore local route and even grows many of its own ingredients, prepared in classical styles and accompanied by a 20,000 bottle wine cellar. Matsuhisa (see Vail above) is Aspen’s other top table. With yet another take on regional American cuisine featuring ultra-fresh meticulously sourced ingredients, Eight K at the Viceroy Snowmass has surprised even locals by emerging as a standout dining choice in the area – helped by not having much competition out at Snowmass.
Jackson, WY: Given the impressive number of billionaires forcing millionaires out of the local housing market, you’d think Jackson would have better food, but the only standout among the myriad better than average eateries is Couloir (see “On Mountain Dining” below). I’m not a big fan of molecular gastronomy or bemoaning the loss of El Bulli, but if you want an offbeat combination of science lab and pub food, it is worth the trip to Victor, Idaho and Spoons Bistro where the chef owner drives several hours each way to get heirloom potatoes with a particular water content for his fries and rolls out dishes like pasta-free zucchini “spaghetti.”
Stowe, VT: The two best ski resort eateries in the Green Mountain State are both in Stowe, and they are incredibly similar, with a New England take on the farm-to-table fad – which is not a fad in Vermont where it has long been the norm. Solstice in the Stowe Mountain Lodge and Norma’s in Topnotch are both very expensive by local standards, and both very good.
Keystone, CO: Amazingly, the low key Keystone Ranch, stuck out at the resort’s golf course, used to routinely get the State’s highest rating in the Zagat Survey. It’s got a lot more competition now, but it’s still the best of the ubiquitous “cowboy/ranch” style eateries in the Rocky Mountains with game-centric 5-course dinners.
Whistler, BC: Whistler village has more good dining and nightlife options than any ski destination in North America. The one standout is the Bearfoot Bistro, featuring “contemporary Canadian cuisine” – think pulled pork profiteroles. I’ve had lots of game, but the wild Arctic caribou, hunted through an agreement with a First Nation, is the best I’ve ever tasted. They deliver food under silver domes and even let guests try their hand at opening champagne with a saber. Dinner here was my most memorable ski country meal of all time.