New restaurants in Summit County are elevating mountain-town dining

In 2018, when Phillips Armstrong opened Aurum Food & Wine in Breckenridge, he saw it as an opportunity to bring something new to town. What he couldn’t have known was that his restaurant, nestled into a revamped house on Ridge Street, would nudge the dining scene in a new direction.

It’s not unusual for Colorado resort towns to have thriving but creatively stagnant restaurant communities. Rather, it’s often due to the gravitational force of being a tourist town. Visitors swing through, stay a few days, and eat their way through the offerings. So long as the meals consumed are good enough, said tourists will return on their next visit.

And so goes the cycle: There’s very little incentive to push culinary boundaries when the bulk of dining comes from the thrum of out-of-towners. In short, If it’s not broken, why fix it?

And this is where Armstrong and his restaurant group, Destination Hospitality, made their mark.

When it first opened, Aurum’s menus read like that of a big-city restaurant — and like nothing else in Breck: There was warm king crab with brown butter dashi; there was sultry green herb risotto. There was also a daily happy hour plush with warm, buttery Parker House rolls, an excellent burger with onion jam and melty Gruyère, and golden haystacks of hand-cut fries.

All at once, Armstrong nabbed the palates of the food-enthusiast tourists and the locals. “I think we were a change-maker,” Armstrong said. “When we were looking at Breck, people would say, ‘But it’s so saturated, there are so many restaurants, why would you want to compete?’ ” he recounted. “I think it really takes someone to say, ‘Yes, true, but there’s an opportunity to give people something different.’ ”

Now, nearly five years on, Aurum’s menu still pushes and delivers with dishes like octopus carpaccio with grilled artichoke ($18), beef tartare with everything sourdough cracker ($20), and crispy curried cauliflower with hazelnut dukkah ($16). (Come Memorial Day, Armstrong will also launch The Carlin, a much-anticipated inn with two restaurant concepts and luxury hotel rooms.)

In this way, Aurum largely paved the way for chef Matt Vawter — a Keystone native who left Summit County to cook in Denver under Alex Seidel at Fruition Restaurant and Mercantile Dining & Provision — to return to town and open Rootstalk in December 2020. Rootstalk raised the bar even further than Aurum, ushering in the finely tuned craft and flavors of Fruition and Mercantile.

With a farm-to-table ethos coupled with seasonal ingredients, housemade pastas, a chef’s counter, a tasting menu, and a front-of-house staff that embodies the word “hospitality,” Rootstalk carved out its niche — and quickly. The restaurant has flourished, despite being one of the more expensive dinners in the county. Just like Aurum, it is loved by locals and tourists alike.

“The recommendation piece is big up here,” Vawter explained. “We knew we were doing something great when we would ask ‘How did you hear about this place?’ and they would say, ‘Oh, a local told me on the chairlift.’ ”

Rootstalk (which refers to Vawter returning to his roots) has been so successful that he opened Radicato, a more casual, Italian-leaning spot up the street, last June. (Radicato means “deep-rooted” in Italian.) Between the two spots, you can find dishes like crispy sunchoke salad with pickled mustard ($21), housemade reginetti pasta with pancetta, chanterelles, and walnut gremolata ($22), and pancetta-wrapped quail with creamy polenta and cacciatore ($41).

The restaurants are important, Vawter said, but he also has an eye on the scene as a whole.

“When I was at the Cellar (a small-plates restaurant in Frisco that closed in 2008), we were doing cool stuff but it wasn’t well received. But the local community has grown and evolved,” he said. Now, Vawter wants to create culinary opportunities in Summit County that didn’t exist when he was a young cook.

“That’s what we’re trying to build,” he emphasized. “I left this town because I couldn’t learn from here; I needed to learn from bigger chefs. I hope that no one has to make that decision.”

It might be difficult to imagine that two restaurants (Aurum and Rootstalk) could affect so much change, but — as they say — build it and they will come. Slowly but surely, the culinary fabric is changing countywide. In July 2020, arguably one of the worst times in recent history to open a place, Chris Schmidt turned the lights on at Bird Craft, a stall inside Frisco’s Outer Range Brewing Company. Schmidt, who first opened Craftsman in Edwards in 2017, already understood what it takes to move a scene forward.

It is not overstepping to say that Craftsman and its neighbor, Hovey & Harrison, have made Edwards’ vibrant culinary culture what it is today.

In the two-plus years since opening, Bird Craft’s Thai-style fried chicken and other Southeast Asian eats have become veritable staples no matter which part of the county you live in. “The food is different, you can’t get anything like it anywhere in Summit,” Schmidt said. “It’s fresh from a flavor standpoint and as a concept. It’s not pretentious, it’s accessible, and it’s a great fit for the taproom.”

Another great fit — Bluebird Market Hall — celebrated its one-year anniversary in  January. The food hall is Summit’s first, but it’s not located in Breckenridge, or even Frisco. Instead, it’s smack in the middle of Silverthorne. Long considered a pass-through town, downtown Silverthorne is developing, well, a downtown; Bluebird is an anchor. With 11 vendors, ranging from empanadas and ice cream to crêpes and pizza, Scott Vollmer, Bluebird’s director of property operations, believes there’s something for everyone.

And given the constant buzz that populates the hall, Bluebird has struck gold, or at least has become a family staple. “A huge number of our regulars are families, whether those are weekend second homeowners or locals,” he said.

When Vollmer set out to create Bluebird, he envisioned a place that would encourage locals and tourists alike to gather. “When we looked at Summit, we saw the community was already there. but it’s fair to say it was an underserved dining scene,” he said “We wanted to create an environment with year-round connection points.”

The hope is that with the momentum of restaurants like Rootstalk, Radicato, and Aurum (plus The Carlin when it opens in May) and easy-to-pop-into places like Bird Craft and Bluebird, that other restaurateurs will view Summit as a ready playground with room to grow.

“I am all about healthy competition,” said Vawter. “There’s that saying that a rising tide lifts all boats. I want to see everyone up here succeed, and I want great places to go eat.”

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