Atop Continental Divide, Arapahoe Basin opens highest restaurant in U.S.

Wraparound windows at the new il Rifugio Italian Bistro offer patrons a breathtaking view off Arapahoe Basin Ski Area and the surrounding mountain ranges. The bistro opened last month as the highest restaurant in the U.S.
Ian Zinner / Arapahoe Basin Ski Area

Telluride’s Alpino Vino can step down because Arapahoe Basin Ski Area has the highest restaurant in North America now.

With A-Basin opening a European-style bistro on the Continental Divide last month, the new restaurant exists as a safe haven at 12,456 feet elevation, making it the highest restaurant in the U.S. as far as A-Basin’s staff can tell.

A woman leaving the restaurant Tuesday afternoon called it “a lifesaver,” but “il Rifugio,” as the bistro’s known, actually means “the shelter” in Italian.

Like a lookout tower high up in the mountains, the bistro rewards anyone who ventures up there with a breathtaking, wraparound view of the surrounding terrain and nearby mountain ranges. It’s inspired by the Alps and can only be reached via chairlifts so anyone who eats there will inevitably have to ski or ride back down to the base.

It goes without saying there’s a limited amount of geography extending above 10,000 feet in North American. The vast majority of it is rugged mountains, uninhabited and undeveloped.

Within that realm, however, exist ski resorts, which have both the traffic and infrastructure to support businesses at such heights. In Summit County, for example, Keystone’s Alpenglow Stube and Der Fondue Chessel — two different restaurants in the same building — are both at 11,444 feet, for example, and Pioneer Crossing at Breckenridge Ski Resort can be found way up at 11,400 feet.

On its website, the high-dollar Alpino Vino restaurant at Telluride Ski Resort brags about being “the highest elevation fine-dining restaurant in North America” even though it stands at 11,966 feet elevation, which is almost 500 feet below A-Basin’s il Rifugio.

Being the highest restaurant in the U.S. might be a neat distinction for A-Basin, but Chef Chris Rybak, the ski area’s director of food and beverage, said it means a lot less to him than putting together a unique food service that leaves his guests as surprised as they are satisfied.

“I take pride in everything we do around here from a food and beverage standpoint,” he said. “I have a great team that I couldn’t do my job without and they have all contributed to the success of getting (the bistro) open.”

And it’s not the first time A-Basin’s done a food service at 12,500 feet, either. Simple lunches used to be sold out of the Snow Plume Refuge — the building that houses A-Basin’s ski patrol offices and the small bistro that seats around 30 people max. That practice ended more than a decade ago, however.

But with the opening of the new Beavers Lift and 468 acres of expanded terrain this season, Rybak decided it was the right time to cater to the added skier traffic at the top of the mountain and bring back the high-altitude food service, only this time with better menu options.

The restaurant is open seven days a week and serves food from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. The menu includes hearty meat and cheese charcuterie plates, signature soups, salads and flatbreads, along with espresso drinks and desserts. Alcohol sales are expected to start soon, as the ski area is working with state officials to get the proper permissions in place to sell patrons beers, wines and a limited amount of cordials.

Rybak said the most challenging part of running a restaurant at 12,500 feet is the logistics. The Snow Plume Refuge building is unique in that it has no running water, draws electricity from solar panels and collects human waste in composting toilets.

“I think that sounds weird to the general public — how can you do this without running water? — but we can,” Rybak said.

As A-Basin tries to remain environmentally conscious, he added, the bistro has to resupply itself using minimal snowcat runs — two trips per week. The bistro also plates reusable dishes, cups and cutlery, which are taken up and down the Lenawee Lift in special bins to be washed at the mid-mountain Black Mountain Lodge.

A-Basin says doing things this way significantly reduces the amount of paper and plastic trash that’s being generated at the top of the mountain.

Most people would assume a restaurant at 12,500 feet would charge prices equally as high. While the prices are above many people would expect to pay in town, they remain quite reasonable as far as on-mountain lunches go. A half order of the charcuterie plate, which could easily be lunch for two, runs $18.

“When (people) come to a ski area, their perception is high prices and OK food,” Rybak said. “My goal is to combat that with reasonable prices and great food so that the perception when you leave is, ‘Wow, that was a ski area but that was reasonable.’”

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