Vail's Little Diner Has Big Personality

Vail's Little Diner may be small, but the dishes whipped up by owner and chef Brain Little are anything but. Offering slope-side service and hearty portions of home-cooked delights, this diminutive diner has quickly earned a big reputation.



Chef Brian Little dusts powdered sugar onto his pannekoeken, or German pancake.

Chris Council & Emily Chaplin

(This story originally appeared in the May/June 2014 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)


Be prepared to get cozy when stepping into the Little Diner, as the smallest full service restaurant in Vail lives up to its name. Measuring just 690 square feet with 20 stools surrounding a horseshoe counter space, patrons are apt to rub elbows with a ski bum or perhaps someone more well known, such as local Olympian and World Cup ski racer Lindsey Vonn, who frequents the restaurant.

Owner and chef Brian Little is usually too busy working behind the counter to pay much notice to the apparent celebrity status, or lack thereof, of his patrons.

Although as Little tells it, one day one of his cooks did happen to notice Vonn eating at the counter and asked her, “Are you her?” with Vonn responding with a simple “yes.”

More recently world-renowned chef José Andrés came in for a breakfast of a Florentine omelet, toast and German pancake.

It wasn’t until after Andrés had left that a friend of Little’s, enjoying his meal at the same time, informed him of his most recent guest, who was dressed in ski clothing.

“They are just like everyone else,” Little said. “They just come in for a good meal.”

Little and his wife, Peggy, co-own the restaurant, which celebrated its six-year anniversary this spring. The pair met in a chemistry class at Arizona State University 18 years ago, although theydidn’t trade their vows until six months after the diner opened its doors. The couple has been in the restaurant business their whole lives, including working their way through college. After graduation, they moved to Vail to enjoy the life of ski bums, hitting the slopes by day and toiling in hotels and restaurants in the evenings to support their habit.

Eventually the Littles realized they wanted to build a future in the town and that owning their own business was the best way to plant roots. The space became available after the former tenant, DJ’s Diner, closed its doors after 28 years. Owning their own restaurant is something the couple has always wanted to do, Little said.

The name of the diner belies both the portions and the taste of the dishes served. Those dishes include a host of breakfast and lunch offerings, largely incarnations of family recipes. Little’s Grandma Dot lends impetus to the grits and scrambled eggs, Peggy’s mother gives inspiration to the chipped beef, with even Little’s father playing a role in the eggs benedict.The Littles pride themselves on fresh food that is locally sourced, and everything is made from scratch.

Patrons get to watch the Littles make food just behind the counter, the way it used to be in small diners across the country. Brian is a mainstay in the cramped quarters and every so often can be seen sprinkling powdered sugar on the “Pannekoeken,” or German pancakes. Although, according to Little, visiting Germans acknowledge there is nothing of the dish’s resemblance in their country, that doesn’t stop them from scarfing it down.

Few people are really “from” Vail, but the town has become a mecca for Coloradans and international travelers alike.

“Everyone can have a taste of home, and other people from around world try new things,” said Little. Vonn and Andrés not excluded.

 

Pannekoeken

This breakfast dish is variously known as pannekoeken, German pancakes or Dutch babies, but it’s delicious no matter what you call it. The Little Diner serves pannekoeken as breakfast treats, but they’re also popular in Belgium and the Netherlands for children’s birthday meals.

 

3 large eggs
3/4 cup bread flour
3/4 cup whole milk
4 Tbsp unsalted butter
powdered sugar
1 lemon

 

Serves 1-2

In large mixing bowl, whisk all ingredients until smooth and refrigerate for five minutes. Heat oven to 400°. Butter a 10- or 12-inch cast iron skillet or round Pyrex casserole dish and place in oven until butter is melted. Pour batter into the middle of the dish, pushing the butter toward the outside. Bake 18 to 22 minutes, or until middle of the pancake is light brown and edges are crispy. Do not open oven door at any time to check it until after the 16- to 18-minute mark. When finished baking, dust liberally with powdered sugar and serve immediately with lemon wedges.

 

Egg White Veggie Omelet

One of the Little Diner’s breakfast staples, the Egg White Veggie Omelet’s simplicity provides the perfect vehicle for the flavors of fresh ingredients to shine through.

 

4 large eggs
1 Tbsp broccoli, steamed and chopped
1 Tbsp onions, diced
1 Tbsp tomatoes, diced
1 Tbsp bell peppers, diced
1 oz mushrooms, sliced
1 oz cheddar cheese, shredded
1 pinch green onions, sliced thin
1 tsp salted butter
canola oil
salt
pepper

 

Serves 1-2

Separate yolks from whites in mixing bowl. Whisk whites gently – do not make them foamy. In a small saute pan on medium heat, cook broccoli, onions, tomatoes, bell peppers and mushrooms with light oil and a pinch of salt and pepper until soft. In a 10- to 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, add butter and a few small drops of canola oil, swirling to coat the skillet. When pan is hot, pour egg whites into skillet and wait for a solid layer to form across the inside of the pan. Use a rubber spatula and pull the sides into the middle, swirling the pan so the liquid goes toward the outside. Repeat this process until most of the liquid has formed a fluffy layer across the pan. Add cheese, then the veggies, and fold. Slide onto plate and top with green onions.

 

Huevos Rancheros

The Little Diner makes Huevos Rancheros in the traditional way – light and simple,without heavy fillers like beans, sour cream or avocados. Though the diner takes a labor-intensive approach by making everything from scratch, the recipe is easy to make using store-bought ingredients.

 

8 oz hashbrowns
6 oz fresh-made salsa
3 large eggs
1 large flour tortilla
1/4 cup green onions, sliced thin
4 Tbsp salted butter
1 Tbsp canola oil
Salt
Pepper

 

Serves 1-2

Fresh salsa must be cooked to remove high water content. Heat fresh salsa in medium saucepan on medium heat until reduced by half and fairly thick. Store-bought thick and chunky salsa does not have to be cooked, but warmed before serving. Melt butter and blend with canola oil. Preheat 12- to 14-inch cast iron skillet or griddle at medium-high heat for 7-8 minutes. When skillet is hot, pour half of butter/oil mixture into skillet and place hashbrowns on top. Drizzle remainder of butter/oil mixture on top of hashbrowns and season with salt and pepper to taste.

When edge of potatoes start to crisp, turn the whole pile over in one shot. This will create the foundation, so it is best it all stays together. After flipping the potatoes, fry the eggs, any style. Lightly season with salt and pepper to taste. When the potatoes are almost done cooking, place the tortilla on top to warm it up. When all components are ready, plate with potatoes on bottom in a tall stack, the tortilla folded twice into a wedge, then the eggs, sauce and green onions.

 

(This story originally appeared in the May/June 2014 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)

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