Vail’s sweeping back bowls, glades, and groomers beckon more than a million and a half visitors each year, making it the biggest and most visited ski resort in North America. Despite the tourists, the mountain town has still managed to preserve much of the charm that first attracted skiers when it opened in the early ’60s at the base of Vail Pass.
Stroll through Vail Village and you’ll see a few names you recognize (like Matsuhisa, the eponymous Japanese restaurant by famed chef Nobu Matsuhisa, which arrived a few years ago), but it’s the locally owned businesses—some old, some new—that dominate here. “Places that were once franchises are now going back to mom-and-pops,” says Vail native Will Elliot of Paragon Guides, an outdoor adventure company. “There’s a young generation of locals who are breathing new life into the old guard’s businesses.”
Restaurateur Simone Larese, for instance, recently decided to revive her father’s famed Swiss Hot Dog Company in the form of a hip eatery called Blü Cow Café. The elder Larese opened his landmark hot dog joint in the ’60s, and much to the dismay of his loyal patrons, eventually relocated the shop out of town. Now skiers head to his daughter’s Blü Cow Café for Larese’s famous Swiss Hot Dog (two veal brats, onions, Ernst’s curry mix, and brown mustard on a toasted baguette), just as they did 40 years ago.
Elliot himself is another prime example of Vail’s “new guard.” He co-owns Paragon Guides with his father, who launched the company in 1978. The outfitter offers expert-led ski expeditions and snowshoeing tours, in addition to unique experiences like “Dawn Patrol,” a new program in partnership with the Four Seasons Resort and Residences Vail. Guides take hotel guests to ski the backcountry of Vail Pass bright and early, before making their way down the mountain just as the sun rises. The experience then culminates in a lavish Four Seasons breakfast.
For those who prefer to sleep in, an equally mouthwatering breakfast spread can be had on the terrace of Ludwig’s, overlooking Gore Creek at the Sonnenalp Hotel. A favorite among Vail regulars since it opened in 1979, the luxurious 127-room property is just one of the town’s many enduring institutions—a list that includes La Bottega, a go-to for wine and antipasti; Vendetta’s, the 34-year-old pizza bar in the heart of Vail Village; and Sweet Basil, a dining room that’s remained a hit since opening in 1977.
For libations, The Red Lion is Vail’s most beloved mainstay. It’s a quintessential ski-town bar right off the mountain, where Wall Street jet-setters can be found indulging in burgers and beers alongside ski patrollers. You’ll enjoy a similar experience at Los Amigos—tradition there involves tossing back margaritas on the outdoor deck while watching people tumble down the slopes. Beer lovers have long found a home in Vail (Vail Brewing Co., Crazy Mountain, and Bonfire in the nearby town of Eagle are among the best breweries), and now those looking for a more refined drinking atmosphere have options too:
The Remedy, the Four Seasons’ trendy cocktail bar with floor-to-ceiling windows, opened last year, as did Root & Flower, the town’s only wine bar, which serves more than 50 varietals by the glass alongside cheese-and charcuterie boards. 10th Mountain Whiskey & Spirit Company—founded in 2014 by Vail locals Christian Avignon and Ryan Thompson—has an elegant tasting room furnished with distressed wood and barrel stools in the heart of Vail Village. Named for the decorated World War II Army unit that trained in the Rockies, the brand successfully pays tribute to the old while introducing Vail to something new.