Where to Find a Dining Room on the Continental Divide
A-Basin’s new mountaintop chalet, dubbed the highest restaurant in North America, channels the cuisine and vibe of a ski trip to the Italian Dolomites
On a bluebird Thursday afternoon in March, I walk through the door of what feels like a phone booth at the summit of A-Basin and behold a scene I did not know existed in Colorado. A cornucopia of meats and cheeses beckons from behind a glass delicatessen case, alongside fresh baguettes. Some of the country’s best high-alpine skiing beckons just outside the windows.
“Welcome to the highest restaurant in North America!” a man bellows from behind the counter.
I’m at Il Rifugio, the newest restaurant at Arapahoe Basin, which sits at 12,500 feet and evokes a vibe straight out of the Italian Dolomites. I try not to notice the cramped quarters, focusing instead on the charcuterie and view. I order a half-size antipasto. The skier behind me orders a double espresso. It’s 1:15 p.m.
Forgoing the 32 chairs inside, I take a seat at one of the five wooden picnic tables on the deck and watch hikers boot up the North Pole and Willy’s Wide staircases on the East Wall (see "How to Earn Your Turns")—which I plan to do after lunch. A middle-aged couple sips red wine at the table next to me, basking like rattlesnakes in the sun. It’s the closest I have felt in America to skiing in the Alps.
Il Rifugio, which opened last January, was created to solve problems: spread out the lines at A-Basin’s signature on-mountain dining room (Black Mountain Lodge) and base area restaurant (6th Alley Bar & Grill), while filling a long-shuttered dining hut at the mountain’s summit (Snowplume Refuge). More than a decade ago, the mountaintop nook housed a small soup kitchen, but it never really took. “We’ve talked for years: What can we do up there? How do we make it something special?” says A-Basin Food and Beverage Director Chris Rybak, who’s worked at the ski area for 11 years. “I can serve soup in any of our other restaurants.”
With the Basin planning to introduce a via ferrata rock-climbing course on the East Wall, adding an Italian-themed eatery made sense. There were limitations due to facility (the space is roughly 200 square feet) and logistics (it has no running water), but those challenges just reinforced the concept that Rybak and his colleagues had in mind. “It had to be something that we could do simply, in-house, with little to no preparation needed off-site. Because anything that would have to be cooked would have to be cooked at BML and then taken up by chairlift or snowcat,” he explains, adding that the same challenges apply to dishware and gray water. It helped that Rybak is a connoisseur of European-style antipasto—meats, cheeses, olives, peppers, bread. “I could eat it all day long,” he chuckled this fall, just back from spending a month in Europe.
In its brief debut last winter, Il Rifugio drew rave reviews. Largely for the food—all meats, including the 16-month-aged prosciutto, and the Taleggio cheese are imported from Italy—but also for the experience. “You can certainly go to some resorts and get a meat and cheese plate, but having this whole thing come together at 12,500 feet is really unique to us,” Rybak says. “If people have friends in town, they’re taking them up there. If there’s a celebration, they go up there. I hear that a lot.”
In March, I’d brought a sizable appetite but was unprepared for the mountain of food that arrived. Alongside a thinly sliced warm baguette sat piles of coppa stagionata, roasted red tomatoes, schiacciata piccante, grilled artichoke hearts, prosciutto, giardiniera, Fruition Farms Cacio Pecora, Castelvetrano olives, Jumpin’ Good Goat Dairy First Snow, and Taleggio. The antipasto ($18 for a half order, which can feed two; $32 for a full order, which I presume can feed an NFL team) is one of two bestsellers; the porchetta panino, with fig spread, Boschetto al Tartufo, and baby arugula, is the other ($18).
The menu also includes four kinds of beer (including Stiegl Radler), bottles of Italian wine (ranging from $32 to $70), a traditional insalata, crab and corn chowder with a warm baguette, and tiramisu for dessert. If you’re the kind of Summit diner who feels better about feasting and frolicking on the clock after sending a quick check-in email to the home office, you can do that too: Il Rifugio may not have running water, but it does have free Wi-Fi.
Il Rifugio at Snowplume
Top of the Beavers lift, A-Basin (open 10 a.m.–2 p.m.); arapahoebasin.com