By Kim Fuller Published in the Vail Daily
AVON — The railroad tracks that run through the Eagle River valley seem like they are almost a part of the landscape now — fastened to the ground like the area’s original ranches and farms; it’s history that remains steadfast amidst an ever-emerging resort community.
There is only one boxcar resting along the quiet rails in Avon today — a new local restaurant that is ready to take you for a ride.
“The railroad tracks here have been such a staple to the actual town of Avon, based on the fact that they used to transport all the potatoes and lettuce back in the day,” said Hunter Chamness, Boxcar Restaurant & Bar chef and owner.
For Chamness and his business partner and kitchen comrade, Cara Luff, food transport and the farm-to-table philosophy are strong threads in the culinary fabric of a quality establishment.
COMPLIMENTS TO THE CHEFS
Chamness and Luff met and worked together in Seattle at Crush — chef Jason Wilson’s fine-dining and award-winning restaurant that boasts modern American cuisine. Individually, Chamness and Luff have worked in numerous kitchens around the country, and they each have held sous chef titles. What’s a first for them both now is a restaurant that is all their own.
CHANGING IT UP
“We wanted to create a comfortable place where people can have a lot of fun and quality food,” Chamness said. “And for us, being chef-owners, we are able to change it up whenever we want, and that’s the fun part.”
Luff said it was a combination of her experience in fine dining kitchens like Crush, and her stint as sous chef at Quinn’s Pub, a quality gastropub in Seattle, that inspired her vision for Boxcar, which opened April 9.
“I thought, how can we mix fine dining with a place like Quinn’s, and then have it come to life,” she recalled. “That was my goal: to do fine dining in a comfortable, chill setting.”
GO FOR THE FOOD
Boxcar’s menu, from the snacks and small plates, to large plates and desserts, implements the all the foundations of quality cuisine that a foodie will be able to spot right away.
The roasted cauliflower dish listed as a snack features black garlic, a pickled and milder version of the potent ingredient, with lemon gremolata. The florets are set in a bowl on a cauliflower puree. It’s delicious, vegetarian and nutrient-rich — that’s a solid way to start.
“Since we both worked at a lot of fine dining places before, we still use all that refinement, all the execution, in everything that we do,” Chamness said.
And it shows. The process for making the spiced chicharrones (pork rinds), takes Boxcar sous chef James Roundy and the kitchen staff about three days. The same homemade attention is given to small plate-style dishes, like the warm housemade burrata with fava beans, fingerling potatoes and ramp relish, as well as the smoked duck and sweetbread sausage, served with pickled fennel and a foie gras huckleberry sauce.
The kitchen makes its own stocks and homemade pasta, among other things. Try the chicken noodle soup dish to taste for yourself. It’s a unique combination of winter and summer, with a light lemongrass consomme poured tableside over rich chicken leg confit and parsnip-stuffed agnolotti.
Large plates — like seared halibut with smoked clams and lentils or a hanger steak with glazed short ribs — are available for dinner, as well as a fully loaded Boxcar bacon cheddar burger. The 2 to 6 p.m. apres menu is slightly smaller, but it features both a pastrami and a porchetta sandwich to fulfill a post-hike or ride appetite.
The Boxcar team is all about highlighting their small plates, however, so try a few things and share with your friends.
“We wanted to have a lot of shared plates,” Chamness said. “That’s the way we have always enjoyed dining, going out with friends and family and trying a bunch of different dishes.”
STAY FOR THE SCENE
The space is much larger than a boxcar, and even the most refined of the Denver & Rio Grande passenger car riders would have been impressed by the comfort of the dining room’s tan leather tufted seats and the clean lines of the chandelier that hangs above the bar area’s community table.
Maybe they would have stayed a while too, since the spacious windows provide great views and streams of natural light that shine down on a fireplace lounge and horseshoe bar.
Locals and visitors will settle in to any seat in the house, including those coming soon on the outdoor patio. The open-air space is set to kickoff June 27 and 28, as Boxcar is teaming up with the nearby KSKE Ski Country radio station to celebrate the Reds, Whites & Brews event at the peak of summer.
Many glasses have already been raised here, and Boxcar’s beer list should be on your radar. Their ten rotating tap handles and bottle selections feature Colorado crafts from breweries like Avery and Telluride Brewing Company, as well as worldly favorites like Belgium’s Chimay and Chicago’s Goose Island.
DINING FOR THE JOURNEY, NOT THE DESTINATION
For great food and a mountain modern atmosphere, guests will be satisfied with the menu’s mid-level price range. A bill could consist of a $5 apres snack with a $8 glass of wine, or a combination of several $10 to $15 small plates, a couple $22 to $26 large plates and a large format craft beer bottle to share on the side.
“Chefs don’t get paid a lot of money, so it’s not like we’re able to go out and enjoy a lot of really great quality food on a budget,” Chamness said. “So we wanted to offer something like that, so everyday people who we are friends with can go out and have quality food, a great time and challenge their palate, yet at the same time feel casual and relaxed.”
While the back dining room with an open kitchen is classy and the bar-lounge area creates nothing but comfort, guests should be sure to visit the wallpaper clad bathrooms — at least to give their hands a dip in the communal trough sink. It’s a fun space and adds an even more creative touch.
If your last stop on this restaurant’s rails is with dessert, you can thank pastry chef Shannon Smith for the sweet ending. Smith and sous chef Roundy came out from Seattle’s Crush to join Luff and Chamness on their venture, adding to the layers of Boxcar’s culinary continuity.
Smith offers three tastes of decadence on the menu currently, including a banana cinnamon roll bread pudding with pecan ice cream and maple bourbon caramel. Add a cup of Vail Mountain Roasters coffee to top it off, and the taste bud train rolls on in the valley.