As I drove into Steamboat Springs from Denver, ice-crusted trees and towering snow drifts gave the impression that winter had long made a claim to this tiny mountain town. But despite the amount of frozen matter gracing the roads and buildings, the area bustled with happy skiers, tourists shopping on the main street and food lovers reveling in a fantastic restaurant and craft beer scene. This town has plenty of great eats, a fact often overshadowed by Colorado’s bigger and brighter ski resorts (I’m looking at you, Aspen and Vail). So next time you find yourself in the Centennial State, skip the fancy ski areas and head for this less-crowded haven — here’s where to eat in Steamboat Springs. Your sense of adventure (and your appetite) will thank you.
Low Country Kitchen
Chef Brian Vaughn has quickly become the buttermilk fried chicken king of Steamboat Springs. Head to his lively joint seven days a week for dinner and order dishes like smoked marrow bones with local beer-infused mustard; barbecue lamb shoulder with Carolina rice grits; shrimp and grits with tomato and bacon gravy (see photo at top of page); and buttermilk biscuits laced with local honey and preserves. Vaughn first came to our attention for the innovative Rocky Mountain cuisine he did at his former restaurant, Bistro CV. He does food from the South very well, and many of the ingredients he uses are sourced from within the state. It’s the perfect food to munch on after a long day skiing, hiking or soaking in the hot springs. 435 Lincoln Ave., Steamboat Springs, CO 80477; 970-761-2693; lowrestaurant.com
Many bars in Steamboat Springs also serve food — in fact, I didn’t enter a single drinking den that didn’t at least offer hot bar bites. Laundry is such a gastropub, and as the name suggests it’s housed in a brick building that used to be a laundromat. The food menu is made up of small plates like blue crab and green chili macaroni and cheese; barbecued pork cheeks in steamed buns; and smoked trout salad with cashews and duck fat croutons. You can also get a large dish of fried chicken or the simply named “meat and potatoes” if you feel like noshing on something hearty and straightforward.
Of course one of the main reasons to hit this cozy spot comes in liquid form. The house-infused tequila (habanero, jalapeño and red pepper) offers a lively kick to the Fiery Margarita, and you don’t want to leave without trying the classic gin drink Satan’s Whiskers, an orange-tinged cocktail that dates back to the 1950s. The bartenders also like to light drinks on fire, so make sure to ask about that hot menu the next time you find yourself sidled up to the bar. 127 11th St., Steamboat Springs, CO 80487; 970-870-0681; thelaundryrestaurant.com
Table 79 Food Bar
The newest restaurant on the block is chef Natalie Niederhofer’s causal yet elevated eatery, Table 79 Food Bar. Within the slate-covered walls and under the hum of stylish Edison bulbs, the talented chef is creating crave-worthy dishes done in uncomplicated, wholesome preparations. The flat iron steak comes with simple caramelized vegetables and a house-made steak sauce. The lamb rib appetizer showcases the actual flavor of the meat, and tempura-battered portobello mushroom “fries” dazzle with just a hint of truffle oil. None of the portions are too big, so you walk away full and satisfied without feeling overstuffed. Come in for dinner or happy hour, and make sure to also take a look at the well-curated wine list and craft cocktail menu. 345 Lincoln Ave., Steamboat Springs, CO 80487; 970-761-2463; table79steamboat.com
Though the low-ceiling room that houses the Barley is a bit too well lit to be a proper dive, the draft list of 25-plus Colorado beers will keep you there all night. That and the giant Jenga game in one of the corners, of course. It’s one of the best places around to taste a true range from the Centennial State’s craft beer scene, and you’ll find brews from places such as the Steamboat Springs staple Butcherknife Brewing Company, Edward’s Crazy Mountain Brewing Company, Denver’s Epic Brewing Company and Boulder’s Upslope Brewing Company. The bar also serves a mean cocktail, including hopped tipples and barrel-aged classics. Chase your booze with a little IPA-infused fondue and you’re set for the night. 635 Lincoln Ave., Steamboat Springs, CO 80487; 970-761-2195; thebarleycolorado.com
Visitors to Steamboat Springs will want to hit up this seasonal spot right at the base of the Thunderhead ski lift. Not only do they serve the perfect cold-weather eats, but it all tastes way better than one would expect from a dive-y establishment that caters to ski bums. For starters, the chorizo-laced macaroni and cheese gets huge props for being so good you won’t want to stop eating it. You can also get one of the superb homemade daily soups, elk sausage choripán, crawfish and green chili grits or a toasty rösti, a Swiss dish made with potato hash, Black Forest ham, Gruyère and runny eggs. Go for lunch, a quick snack or beer between runs, or spend your aprés-ski nibbling away as the sun sets behind the snow-covered mountains. 2045 Ski Time Square Dr., Steamboat Springs, CO 80487; 970-879-6652; tbarsteamboat.com
Breakfast at this sunny old café is an absolute must. Like many of the places in this mountain town, you might not expect the Creekside Cafe to wow, but it does. If you are looking for a savory-sweet dish, the Wafflelaughagus offers guests a giant malted waffle coated in all those things that make our brunch faces smile: sausage gravy, bacon, cheese and eggs. The Kartoffelpuffer is also a hearty choice, utilizing the concept of biscuits and gravy but substituting potato pancakes. They also serve an array of omelets, hashes, pancakes and a full eight takes on eggs Benedict. If you can’t manage to get there for breakfast, stop in for lunch and get a burger or patty melt on house-baked rye bread. As a bonus, all the beef on the menu is sourced from hormone-free, grass-fed cows raised in the nearby Yampa Valley. 131 11th St., Steamboat Springs, CO 80487; 970-879-4925; creekside-cafe.com
Salt & Lime
Whether you’re skiing, shopping, hiking or simply lounging around the town, tacos are always called for. Thanks to chef Vicki Connacher, the offerings at this casual spot on the strip prove right on target. Try the chicken tinga, Colorado bison with Manchego and the vegetable option: a terrific taco packed with avocado and roasted cauliflower. They also serve bison burritos, an appetizer of pineapple-stuffed, bacon-wrapped jalapeños, and chili Colorado, which consists of slow roasted brisket, molido red chili and rice. Go in for lunch or dinner, no reservation needed. 628 Lincoln Ave., Steamboat Springs, CO 80487; 970-871-6277; suckalime.com
Mountain Tap Brewery
Of the handful of breweries in the this small town, Mountain Tap has some of the best noshes around. To start, try their wood-fired pizzas and seasonally focused dishes. The forager pie features local mushrooms as well as leeks, Parmesan, béchamel, prosciutto, and roasted garlic. The oven-roasted whole Rocky Mountain trout is served with fennel, greens, preserved lemons and fingerling potatoes, and the wood-fired cauliflower and Brussels sprouts come topped with cheddar béchamel and Calabrian chilies. Of course beer is the main focus at this laid-back brewery, and and the list usually sports about 10 drafts. Choose from favorites such as the Cliffed Out, an imperial stout made with tart cherry juice that’s aged on cacao nibs; the seasonal Camp Clean, which has notes of s’mores, campfires and pine trees; and the Passionate Pedal, a passionfruit-laced wheat beer. Get a pint or flight and relax as you imbibe. 910 Yampa St., Steamboat Springs, CO 80487; 970-879-6646; mountaintapbrewery.com