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Many moons ago, the idea of on-mountain cuisine called to mind overpriced foil-wrapped hamburgers and bowls of chili. Luckily, though, this has changed over the past few years, thanks to a movement toward high-quality food on the mountains, and especially for dinner, after the ski slopes close. Added bonus? The appealing mode of transportation: Most of the restaurants are reached by gondolas, snowcats, and even open-air sleighs. In our opinion, no matter how good the skiing is, a visit to Vail without eating at the Game Creek Club, or a weekend spent in Beaver Creek without experiencing a sleigh-ride dinner at Zach's Cabin, is a trip wasted.
By Larry Olmsted

The United States ski industry only recently realized that a gondola or a horse-drawn-sleigh ride is a nice gimmick but not enough to compete with the many fine-dining options in today's ski towns. Suddenly the emphasis is on a high-quality high-altitude experience at restaurants such as Parallax (760-934-2571), now in its third winter of offering Friday and Saturday snowcat dinners midway up California's Mammoth Mountain (www.mammothmountain.com). They even pour a glass of Champagne for the ride, which is followed by a five-course wine-pairing dinner.

When it comes to peak dining experiences, Colorado has a veritable gold rush. Swank Beaver Creek offers two choices, Zach's Cabin (970-845-6575) and Beano's Cabin (970-949-9090; begins serving dinner December 1). Both are private clubs by day and public by night, with motorized sled rides available to all diners. Along with an à la carte menu and white-glove service, Zach's has a 2007 Wine Spectator "Best Of" Award of Excellence (the magazine's top honor). Nearby Vail has a similar mountaintop private-club-cum-gourmet restaurant, the fabulous Game Creek Club (970-479-4275), which you reach via gondola and a customized snowcat limo. A bit of Switzerland comes to Aspen Highlands every Thursday night, when the Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro (970-923-8715), a European alpine-style hut, offers snowcat dinners, serving classic gourmet dishes at nearly 11,000 feet.

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For some real Swiss mountaintop dining, visit the classic Refuge de Frience, above the Swiss ski resort of Villars (www.villars.ch/en/gastro_altitude.cfm). Reached via a cog railway, the restaurant serves local wines and regional dishes such as fondue and raclette.

A world-class ski resort, Jackson Hole has long been famous for just about everything — its steep runs, deep snowfalls, classic Wild West town — except food. That changes this Christmas, with the opening of the $10 million Bridger Restaurant complex (www.jacksonhole.com). The stone-and-wood building fits the mountain’s frontier image and houses multiple eateries, most notably the gourmet deli Couloir, Jackson’s first on-mountain restaurant open for dinner. (Complimentary gondola rides are included.) The focus is regional fine dining — think porcini-and-cornmeal-dusted Snake River trout or slow-roasted prime rib of buffalo.