Another Mediocre Meal in Estes Park

Sweet Basilico showed promise but fell short as so many others have done

I like Estes Park. I really do. How can I not like a an almost chainfree town whose main street is filled with pedestrians shopping, window shopping and/or heading for a place to eat?  It’s the eating part that is at issue here. After hiking or snowshoeing or skiing, or when we have out-of-town visitors in tow, we tend to stop in Estes Park for a bite to eat. I always have high hopes for a really good meal, but virtually every restaurant disappoints,and we never go back. We often (though not recently) find ourselves returning to Ed’s Cantina. It doesn’t serve the best Mexican food on the planet, but it’s a lot better than most other places we’ve tried.

Disclaimer: I haven’t tried every place in town — and we do tend to stop for a bite between the park’s Beaver Meadows entrance and downtown and in downtown itself. I have not eaten at the Stanley Hotel in years and usually feel too post-hike-y to step into this classy place. The Dunraven Inn is only open for dinner, by which time we’re usually back in Boulder, and for some reason, I’ve never yet made it to the Baldpate Inn, which is closed in winter and has changing hours between high and shoulder seasons.

A few weeks ago, when I was traveling, my husband and a friend wanted to try Sweet Basilico after they went hiking, but there was such a long wait that they went next door to the Estes Park Brewery with its uninspired pub food. With high hopes, we went to Sweet Basilico yesterday. It was raining, so the patio was out of the question. Within the low-slung building is a large old-timey dining room with knotty-pine tongue-and-groove wainscoting, pictures of Italy on the walls above and tables set with plastic cloths and paper placemats. Five chairs at the open kitchen welcomes solo diners. The restrooms — at least the ladies’ room — really needed attention.

La Cucina

Sweet Basilico claims that everything is fresh and made to order. They sure manage to hide that. As at so many Estes Park restaurants, it is geared to customers with middle-American tastes: soft bread or rolls with salted butter, Saltine crackers with every soup, tedious salads often with bottled salad dressing, wilted vegetables, overcooked pasta drowned in too much sauce and so on. Sweet Basilico’s  food was certainly edible, but IMHO not worth a second visit. Another disclaimer. My husband who grew up in Nevada but whose parents came from Minnesota and our friend who is from Indiana thought the food was fine. I grew up in Connecticut, went to college in Boston and lived in New York and Hoboken, New Jersey, with a 45% Italian population when I moved there. My expectations of Italian food exceeded Sweet Basilico’s fare — or maybe it’s just that I’m a food snob!

If you order a soup and salad, as I did, you have a choice of a large soup and a small salad, or a small soup and a large salad. Good idea. Below is the minestrone, the only soup available. It seems to have been made either with a tomato soup base or possibly with diluted tomato juice and then spiced to pleasant pepperiness. I commend the kitchen for not oversalting, but other than that? Sigh. The vegetables and legumes were of decent variety, but most seem to have come from cans or had been prepared sometime before. I think the onions, celery and carrots might have been fresh-cut, but tomatoes or limp string beans didn’t seem fresh. It’s OK to use chickpeas and red beans from a can, but the overcooked broccoli flowerets would have better relegated to the compost bin.

The salad was mostly iceberg lettuce. Iceberg lettuce? In the 21st century? In an Italian restaurant? Indeed, with a choice of three dressings. Sliced carrots, halved cherry tomatoes, unpeeled cukes julienned yellow squash and one each pickled red and green pepper. Long live peperoncini! Large and small salads are shown below.

Chicken mozzarella is white meat topped with mozzarella and baked with sautéed vegetables and served over spaghetti. The vegetables plunked on the pasta and the chicken were thick spears of carrot, red pepper, chunks of zucchini and more of that unappealing broccoli. Let’s just say that presentation is not a strong point.

The cannelloni consisted of what tasted like sloppy Joe filling stuffed into two rolled crepes with melted mozzarella on top, swimming in a sea of pedestrian red sauce and a black olive or two as garnish.

Price check: At lunch, soups, salads and combos, $6.50-$850; sandwiches, $7.95 including minestrone or pasta salad; pasta, $8.95 (extra for cheese ravioli); chicken or shrimp entrees, $9.95; pizza, $4.95 for a plain “mini” to #18.95 for a fully loaded large; sides, $1.75-$3.95.

The Urbanspoon listing below still contain’s Sweet Basilico’s former address. It is now is at  430 Prospect Village Dr., Estes Park; 970-586-3899.

Sweet Basilico Cafe on Urbanspoon

4 thoughts on “Another Mediocre Meal in Estes Park”

  1. Have you tried the two restaurants along 36 – maybe in Pinewood springs? I've heard they're good. I think one is Villa Tatra.

  2. Yes on Villa Tatra a long time ago, but its hours also don't coorindate well w/ a day hike. We sometimes stop there just to buy there house-smoked salmon and trout — the best around, IMO. The other restaurant you might be thinking of is/was La Chaumiere. We never went there because it too was dinner-only. In its location is a cherry specialist: cherry jams, cherry pies, cherry-theme "things," ice cream and espresso drinks. They seem to be doing fine in summer, but I don't know how that model will work in winter — or whether it will be a seasonal business.

  3. Totally agree about Sweet Basilico. Our current favorite in EP is Smokin’ Dave’s BBQ. It is really tasty and Dave has great local and out of state craft beers on tap. The atmosphere is modern rustic and comfortable as well. This is one of the only restaurants that will still be packed out in the winter – that definitely says something!

    1. Brett – Finally found some very good eateries in Estes Park. Rock Inn is a big log building with a warm, welcoming atmosphere and very good versions of many American favorites. See For fine dining, the dining room at Mary’s Lake Lodge has very good food, a truly lovely atmosphere and attentive service. See Give those a try too.

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