Head of the House
Photos by Bob Winsett
Long a familiar face in Beaver Creek, Don Bird is owner and maître d’ of the resort’s venerable Golden Eagle Inn.
There’s just nothing like being in the hands of a true master.
In the world of fine dining, that feeling often manifests itself when the reasons for it go unnoticed, the “maître d” — or “master of” the house — orchestrating a restaurant’s assets and managing its staff like a culinary masterpiece.
From taking reservations, selecting a table, taking cocktail orders and getting entrees started to recommending wines, suggesting desserts and presenting the final bill, the head of the house is in charge, making sure expectations of every customer are met or, better yet, exceeded.
There’s no better place than the Vail Valley, home to dozens of renowned fine dining establishments, to witness a true maître d’ at work.
We recently visited three of them seeking menu suggestions for the holidays — and to see what makes each tick.
Don Bird at The Golden Eagle Inn
“I enjoy the service aspect,” says Don Bird, proprietor of the venerable Golden Eagle Inn located in the heart of Beaver Creek Village. “For me, this business is about personal touch, attention to detail and recognizing and appreciating the customer.”
To anyone visiting one of Beaver Creek’s first fine dining establishments, he’s the epitome of service, indeed. Lunch or dinner, seemingly every day of the year, Bird is there greeting and seating customers, managing his loyal kitchen and wait staffs, even tending bar. It’s all part of his relentless routine.
Bird’s involvement with the Golden Eagle Inn began when Pepi Langegger, owner of Vail’s legendary Tyrolean Inn, opened the Beaver Creek restaurant in 1987.
Bird, who had been the Tyrolean’s manager and maître d’, moved to the new restaurant in the same capacity. Now, he does the books, too, having purchased the Golden Eagle Inn from Langegger in 2007.
Following the purchase, Bird promptly commissioned a local interior designer, Jim Powell, to give the place a complete facelift, transforming the old-style Austrian tavern inside into a warm yet modern showplace for contemporary art.
He also installed new floor-to-ceiling glass doors that open the restaurant to the outside patio for that “classic European sidewalk café” ambiance.
Customers have long enjoyed the Golden Eagle Inn’s renowned “creative American cuisine” featuring fresh Colorado game dishes like garlic-coated lamb sirloin, hazelnut-bacon-crusted rainbow trout and crispy sesame duck.
For the holidays, Bird suggests a new creation — roast loin of peppered North American elk served with Val d’Aosta fontina sweet potatoes Dauphinoise, a huckleberry gastrique and sugared cranberries. It should be quite something at the hands of the Golden Eagle Inn’s new executive chef, David M. Root, who has been recognized by such publications and publicaions as Food & Wine Magazine and Bon Appétit.
Doug Abel at Juniper Restaurant
Carving out a niche as a master of fine dining just down the road is Douglas Abel at Juniper Restaurant, located along the Eagle River in Riverwalk at Edwards.
Abel, with his business partner, Kirby Kelly, and Executive Chef Todd Bullis, says he brought his dream for a new restaurant to Edwards in 2002 based on a proven model.
“Basically, I wanted a downvalley Sweet Basil, from the minute you walk in the door all the way through the dining experience,” says Abel, referring to Vail’s famed fine dining establishment.
“There was great opportunity for that here in Edwards.”
Watching Abel work is to witness a master, indeed.
Though Juniper is open nightly for dinner only, he arrives early in the afternoon, enlivening the place with motivational pats on the backs and helpful observations for the staff.
Nothing escapes his attention, from the wine selection to the linen tablecloths to the lighting throughout the main dining room and newly enclosed patio overlooking the Eagle River.
“I really like what I do, and I think that shows,” Abel says. “I just love being here.”
Evolving what heretofore was dubbed “contemporary American comfort fusion” cuisine to something more “New World contemporary seasonal,”
Abel explains Juniper offers an ever-changing menu featuring delicacies fresh in the moment.
There are two items that get heavy play, however, due to popular demand: the veal scallopini and the Alaskan halibut.
“There would be riots if I changed those two items,” Abel says.
For the holidays this year, Abel and Chef Bullis have come up with a new Asian-inspired dish that, while it may challenge the traditional, definitely promises “something different.”
Indeed, the new dish consists of Ahi tuna with spring vegetable won tons, miso broth and bok choi tofu.
“It’s colorful, clean and fresh,” says Abel, “always in season, but especially fun for the holidays.”
The Stadlers at Up the Creek
Back upvalley, there’s a changing of the guard of sorts at Up the Creek, where for 21 years Peter Stadler has been steadfast as head of the house on the banks of Gore Creek in Vail Village.
Stadler, who came to Vail from Austria decades ago, first opened The Deli on the corner where the Golden Bear is today, then worked front-of-the-house at the Blue Cow and Lord Gore restaurants.
Twenty-one years ago in a space previously occupied by LeRoi’s, then Alain’s, followed by the Great American Lobster Bar, Stadler opened Up the Creek, known widely ever since for its reasonably priced appetizers, salads, pastas, fresh fish and daily specials.
Stadler gradually expanded the restaurant to include a bright “greenhouse” dining area and wraparound creekside deck for lunch and dinner.
These days, Stadler’s not going anywhere and “probably never will retire,” say his sons Patrick, 31, and Mike, 29, though he does seem to be spending more and more time at his isolated retreat at nearby Twin Lakes.
“We do things the same as Dad always did,” says Patrick Stadler, who like his brother attended local public schools before earning an engineering degree at the University of Colorado, only to return to Vail to pursue the opportunity of a lifetime as a restaurateur with a proven establishment in a culinary mecca.
“We grew up here, customers know us by name. We work with great people. It’s a great life.”
Up the Creek’s “made-to-order” menu features a wide variety of delicious entrees, soups and salads, with Executive Chef Matthew Wadding’s worldy expertise coming alive in the main courses.
For the holidays, the Stadler brothers and Chef Wadding recommend an entree of seared Maine diver scallops gently resting on a thin layer of wild mushrooms, spinach and truffle cream.
The celebration continues with tender-beyond-imagination braised short ribs served on a creamy layer of smoked Gouda marscarpone alongside butter-braised asparagus.
“A big hit for the holidays, for sure,” says Mike Stadler. “But it’s always on the menu.”
Stephen Lloyd Wood, a Vail Valley-based freelance writer, editor and media consultant, is a regular contributor to Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine.