There isn't a huge selection of locally owned restaurants in the Vail area, so when one of them doesn't meet expectations, it seems like an even bigger disappointment—and unfortunately, dining at the Vail Steak House Café and Diner was a subpar experience on almost all counts.
The historic building, purchased and revamped by the current owners in 2008, needs a décor update—the interior is dingy and feels like it hasn't been changed since the early 1980s.
The décor wasn't the worst of it, though. On both of our visits (lunch and dinner), we were the only people in the restaurant by the end of our meal, and it's no wonder.
If "steakhouse" is in your name, then steaks should be a key part of the menu; at the Vail Steak House, there are seven steak selections on the massive four-page menu. I ordered the 12-ounce rib-eye ($21), because it's my favorite cut—it's generally tender because of the fat marbling throughout the meat, and it is a pretty forgiving steak when it comes to cooking.
This was the worst rib-eye I've ever eaten. The steak was a very thin cut of meat and was so tough that cutting through it with a steak knife was a challenge. There were two large veins of gristle, and although it was cooked medium-rare, as ordered, it was pretty much inedible. The side dishes were no better. My baked potato was still hard in the middle; the cowboy beans never even made it to the table; and the vegetables were cooked so long that they disintegrated the moment they hit my tongue.
Ted's entrée didn't fare much better. The half-slab of pork baby-back ribs ($19.95) was unimpressive. The first two ribs on each end of the slab were chewy and dry, and the ribs in the middle were greasy. There wasn't much in the way of sauce or dry rub on the ribs (the menu doesn't specify if they are cooked in a dry-rub style or a sauce style)—or, for that matter, flavor. His sides were just as terrible as mine—the mashed potatoes tasted like they came out of a box; the gravy was unbearably salty and came to the table with a thick skin on it, like it had been sitting around untouched for a while. Ted didn't get his cowboy beans, either, and the vegetables suffered the same fate as mine.
On both of our visits, the appetizers were, in a word, unappetizing. They are also expensive for the portion size and quality. The potato skins consisted of four tiny skins topped with cheddar cheese and two or three small chunks of bacon for $6.75. The portion of fried mushrooms ($6.75) was large, but they were mush inside a fried shell. The jalapeño poppers (six to an order for $7.25—that's a $1.20 per popper!) were still frozen on the inside, and the jalapeños were not even remotely spicy.
Lunch entrées were, thankfully, slightly better, though not great. My mushroom burger ($8.50) with fries, ordered medium-rare, featured a mediocre, dry patty, and was way past well-done. The mushrooms were cooked into oblivion and topped with "Swiss" cheese. I use quotation marks, because it was obviously a processed cheese product that happened to be white instead of yellow. At least the tomato and lettuce were fresh.
Ted's cheesesteak sandwich ($8.50) was the best of all the dishes we tried, though a bit on the bland side, and with too much bread in the bread-to-filling ratio. The accompanying steak-cut fries could have used some seasoning and another minute or two in the fryer.
If nothing else, the service was friendly—not always prompt, but friendly in that typical roadside-diner kind of way, where the waitresses call everyone "Hon."
In addition to the vast lunch and dinner menus, Vail Steakhouse Café and Diner has a large breakfast menu available until 3 p.m., daily. Perhaps that's where the magic is. But after having lunch and dinner there, I won't be finding out.