Editor’s note: This is the first part of a three-part series about the history of the Peak 9 Restaurant.
On Easter Sunday, April 20, Peak 9 at Breckenridge Ski Resort will close for the season, and so will an iconic part of the mountain’s history. The Peak 9 Restaurant, which has been privately owned and operated for 40 years, will serve its last meals before owner Kevin Brown hands the keys over to Vail Resorts.
Brown plans to retire when the restaurant closes and said he’s feeling a lot of mixed emotions now that the date is drawing near.
“On the really hard days that stress me out, I’m glad it’s over. But when I have a few people come in, like this older couple,” he said, gesturing to a pair who had just stopped by, “to say goodbye, I’m never going to see them again, and I’ve seen them every year for 30 years. I give them my card and say, ‘The next time you’re in town, let’s get together and take a run.’ But what are the odds that will happen? That’s when it hits me that it’s over; a lot of these people I’ll never see again.”
Running the restaurant
Brown started his relationship with the restaurant during the 1976-77 ski season, hired on as a cook by original owner Barbara Tunnicliffe.
“I’d never really cooked a day in my life, but I told her I could do it,” Brown said. “She said you have to know how to make soups. She hired me, and that afternoon I went to the library and started reading how to make soups.”
Working his way up from cook to kitchen manager, Brown was eventually managing the whole place with Tunnicliffe, whom he called a “hands-on person.”
“She was something else — a little English lady,” Brown said. “She lived up here for the first 10 years; she lived in the building. She kind of got things going in the early days, and she knew everybody in town, a lot of old-timers knew her very well. She’s the one who put this place on the map to begin with. She never took crap from anybody.”
When Aspen Skiing Co. owned the ski area in the 1970s and early ’80s, Brown said the ski-area manager would show up at Peak 9 to complain about something or other on a regular basis and Tunnicliffe would stand right up to him.
“I guess one time he came in here and it was just this room here, and there were only like eight tables,” Brown said, indicating the original Peak 9 Restaurant structure before an addition was added years later. “And he came up here one night and arranged them the way he wanted to arrange them, and she saw them the next morning and said, ‘Who the hell moved these tables?’ She moved them all back, and he came up the same day and they went at it about the tables. He’s gone now, also, but that was pretty funny to listen to that story.”
Brown and Tunnicliffe became partners in the ’90s, and Tunnicliffe passed away in September 2012, leaving Brown as the sole proprietor of the restaurant.
“She was pretty feisty, she always stood her ground with everybody here at the ski resort,” he said. “They would come up here and tell us stuff, and her response would be, ‘Why? I really don’t have to, but I’ll think about it.’ She didn’t take any crap, and she taught me not to, too.”
The Peak 9 Restaurant started off with about a dozen employees, Brown said, and employed as many as 50 to 55 in its heyday before TenMile Station was built. The building also houses two apartments, one of which is home to the resident three-man work crew in charge of morning snow removal, stocking the restaurant and doing evening janitorial work.
“A lot of characters lived up here over the years,” Brown said. “This one guy tried to tell us that he could levitate. Barbara kind of believed him — he was pretty persuasive. We come into work and on the top of that beam over there he had hung something up at the very top.
“There wasn’t a ladder up here to get to it, so Barbara believed that he levitated himself up there. I came to find out about two weeks later that he’d stacked one or two of these tables, garbage cans, everything you can think of to get up there and do it. His name was Larry. I don’t know if she was just cajoling him or what, but it was pretty funny.”
Brown said he also used to lend the residents snowmobiles to get up and down the mountain after the lifts stopped running.
“One guy worked here all season, and he seemed like a pretty nice guy,” Brown said. “He took the snowmobile out all night, and the next morning, I asked, ‘Where’s the snowmobile and where’s John?’ He’d left in the middle of the night. I had a call from ski patrol: We found your snowmobile; it’s wrapped around a tree. They looked for blood, checked clinics around town, but never heard from the guy again. He went down and got in his car and left after he wrecked the snowmobile.
“I knew the guy really well. I thought he would call and say, ‘Sorry about that.’ He was from California, probably just headed home.”
When Brown leaves Peak 9 Restaurant at the end of April, he’ll take with him 40 years of stories and memories and a few signed photos from the restaurant’s walls. He said he doesn’t have any hard feelings toward Vail Resorts for not renewing his lease.
“It’s just the way it is; it’s business,” he said. “You feel like it’s yours when you’ve been here this long, and walking away from it is going to be difficult, but we knew it was coming 30 years ago.”
Brown said he’s thankful for all of the people who have been patrons of Peak 9 for years who are now coming through and saying goodbye and sharing their memories. He said most say how much they are going to miss the homeyness of the place, the friendly atmosphere.
“It’s been heartwarming all season,” he said. “Everybody coming out of the woodwork saying stuff like that. It’s been nice.”
But until the doors close behind him as an owner for the last time, Brown will enjoy the moments he’s always enjoyed at Peak 9 Restaurant.
“Usually the mornings are the nicest part of the day, watching the sun rise every day up over the mountains,” he said. “Every day is a different day, a different sunrise — I have a lot of pictures of those over the years. In the evening when everyone is gone, a few employees might stick around and just the quietness of the place and the views in the afternoon when the mountain is clear; it’s just spectacular.”
“(Tunnicliffe) didn’t take any crap, and she taught me not to, too.”