While less glitzy than famous rivals like Aspen and Deer Valley, Breckenridge is more popular than either – it vies annually with sister resort Vail for the title of the single most visited ski resort in the United States, perennially coming in first or second. There are many good reasons for Breckenridge’s allure and popularity, as it is a huge resort with plenty of terrain for every ability, and a charming, atmospheric old mining town, home to the largest protected historical district in Colorado. As good a reason as any is its varied and versatile lineup of dining options.
The resort has also benefited from years of major expansions, most recently the addition of Peak 6, an entirely new section, which gives Breck 187 trails across nearly 3,000-acres, including over 1,000-acres of above tree-line bowls – served by the highest chairlift in the country, virtually assuring lots of deep snow.
But for many frequent guests it is the town, just 90 minutes west of Denver, that’s the major attraction, its streets lined with saloons and art galleries, plenty of Victorian architecture and Old West flair, unique local retailers, and now even a whiskey distillery. Breck has a welcoming, mom and pop indy aesthetic, and this extends to its food scene, with plenty of down home eats served by owner operators and chef owners with virtually no chains. In the historic district, you can do a tasting at the distillery or have a drink at Colorado’s oldest bar, the Gold Pan Saloon, which has been serving continuously since 1879 – after daring the Feds to try to come to Breck and shut them down during Prohibition. In keeping with the emphasis on local flavor, even one of the town’s fanciest restaurants, Relish, serves 24-ounce cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon – presenting them tableside in marble wine coolers. It’s a town that takes hospitality seriously, but not itself.
Daylight Donuts on North Main Street is the local spot of choice, a friendly hole in the wall with a great assortment of fresh varied donuts and other topnotch baked goods, as well as a full slate of main course breakfast options, including standout burritos and amazing homemade sausage rolls. For a more traditional diner-style sit down meal featuring things like pancakes, fried eggs and corned beef hash, the top spot is Columbine Cafe. Also open for late breakfast (starting at 9AM), a great way to beat the crowds later in the day, is Crêpes a la Cart (see below).
For the avid skier who does not want to miss a lap, the best kept on-mountain secret is the Snow Drifter, a food truck on sno-cat treads, added last winter at the base of Peak 6, where National Forest Service rules prohibited any permanent food and beverage structure. The slopeside truck dishes out surprisingly authentic Philly Cheesesteaks.
The more traditional choice is the Vista Haus on Peak 8, parent company Vail Resort’s notion of the upgraded and updated ski resort lodge cafeteria. The Vista Haus features things like made to order custom salads and the company’s signature Epic Burger, a hearty two-patty specialty sold at all of Vail Resort’s mountains, which uses high quality natural beef, a far cry from the foil wrapped burgers under heat lamps that have given on-mountain dining a bad name. If you want to get off the slopes for lunch, follow the locals and ski all the way down to town where you can walk from the edge of the snow to revered Giampietro’s Pizza (pictured, right), at the base of the Four O’clock trail near the gondola. An oversized slice, salad and soda will set you back ten bucks.
Local Lunch Secret
If you do not mind missing a few laps or value the culinary experience as much as the snow, the place to go is The Living Room, a quiet lobby bar and bar in One Ski Hill Place, Breckenridge’s most luxurious hotel, super conveniently located at the base of Peak 8, ski-in and ski-out. It’s adjacent to the big base lodge cafeteria, yet few visitors even know it exists. Inside is an oasis of calm and a changing daily buffet of high-quality foods. Because it takes reservations, it is a favorite of private lesson instructors.
An overnight success story, the T-Bar has dominated the après scene since it opened as part of the Peak 8 expansion a few years back. The indoor/outdoor slopeside T-Bar is right at the bottom, where all the trails come together at its front door, and is one of the nation’s best on-mountain après spots. From lunch until 6PM the outside seats offer great views of skiing, the indoor section has live music and sports, and both offer drink specials and tasty small plates. If you don’t have to time to sit around, there’s an outdoor Bloody Mary to-go kiosk with various food on skewer options you can add. When you do leave the buzzing scene, the free Breck Connect gondola right here takes you down into town.
In town, there are tons of choices, but among the most popular is Mi Casa, Breck’s longtime favorite Mexican spot, dishing up cheap wings, free chips and salsa, other bar food specials alongside discounted beer and margaritas from 3-6. The Gold Pan Saloon, Colorado’s oldest watering hole, is a must just for atmosphere and history, with pretty basic bar offerings – it’s a shot and a beer kind of place. Beer lovers have ample choices: the Breckenridge Brewery (pictured, right) has been among the most successful craft purveyors in craft-beer-mad Colorado. The original Main Street location was opened in 1990 by a ski bum/home brewer, and three are now five Breckenridge brewpubs statewide and a larger brewery/cannery in Denver. The original remains a favorite town bar that also serves lunch and dinner and turns out hearty ski fare like elk meatloaf, beer brined roast chicken, and Buffalo chicken beer cheese soup made with house IPA. Downstairs at Eric’s, the town’s favorite dive bar, and Kenosha Steakhouse, an upscale spot at the opposite end of the price spectrum, both feature 20 or more beers on tap at all times.
One of the town’s most enduringly popular spots is also its quirkiest: a cart selling crepes on the often frigid sidewalk. So popular that people happily wait in line for an hour, tell friends about it, blog about it, and look forward to coming back every next year, Crêpes a la Cart occupies a prime spot on Main Street. You can’t miss the line, and crepes come in a handy cardboard sleeve so you can even eat them with gloves on. They offer a full selection of traditional crepes, both sweet and savory, plus homespun oddities ranging from Bananas Foster to Philly Cheesesteak – and they even have gluten free batter. To beat the line, the cart is open all day, from breakfast through lunch and après, though evenings are busiest.
Burgers are a staple of ski vacation dining, but few ski towns are lucky enough to have an option as good as Empire Burger (pictured, right), hidden away on the second floor of a mall-like retail block at the town’s busiest intersection, South Park and Main Street. It’s known as the place where local extreme athletes hang out, and is packed during prime après ski hours of 3-5PM. Empire is all about burgers, and what really sets it apart are the almost limitless creative combinations of toppings and sauces – twenty condiment choices in all. These run the gamut from classics such as BBQ to out of the box offerings including Sriracha Mayo, Blue Cheese Vinaigrette, Green Curry and Creamy Horseradish. The house-made Jalapeno Ketchup is exactly as it claims: ketchup made from peppers instead of tomatoes. You can customize hundreds of different combinations or choose from a laundry list of house specialties like the Southwestern green chile burger with roasted green chilies and pepper jack cheese, or a Hawaiian Kona burger with ham, Swiss, pineapple and Asian firecracker sauce. All feature thick homemade patties style using a generous 1/3 of a pound of beef, with the option of upgrading to bison or turkey, served on excellent domed brioche style buns. It’s a place many return to night after night once they discover it (or pop in for lunch).
There are other options, but for a big night out the choice comes down to the town’s ruling triad: Hearthstone, Relish or Briar Rose. Hearthstone does globally eclectic takes on meticulously sourced ingredients: think steamed Chinese buns stuffed with pork belly, Spanish jamon iberico paired with local Colorado cheese, braised then seared octopus, and “Duck Duck Cous Cous,” duck breast and seared foie gras with pearl cous cous. Briar Rose is the Old West-style steakhouse that dominates a town full of Old West-style steakhouses, with white tablecloth meets Victorian flair and most of all, exquisite meats. The bison options are reason enough to visit, with rarely seen cuts like short ribs. But for plain old beef lovers, instead of going just by USDA grade, like most competitors, they source 28-day dry aged meat from local Colorado ranches like Harris and Emerald Valley. More than a few visitors leave every year claiming they had the best steak of their lives – and those who don’t probably had a game dish like elk or venison for variety. Relish is the town’s hipster take on fine dining, serving what it calls “Colorado Inspired Cuisine.” A locally ranched flat iron steak might be paired with pancetta cabernet mashed potatoes, or Colorado raised chicken curry grilled and served with bamboo rice. There is a full mixology craft cocktail list in addition to the aforementioned PBR tall boys.
Award-winning Breckenridge Distillery claims to be the highest altitude distillery on earth, and has won numerous national and international gold medals for its signature blend of house made, Kentucky and Tennessee bourbons, as well as vodka, fruit liqueurs and craft bitters. The small tasting room and retail shop is right in the heart of town, but does not serve food.