Utah Restaurants

HOW WE ATE THEN & NOW: Thirty Years of Utah Dining Scene

When I moved to Utah 30 years ago, the dining scene here ― and especially in Salt Lake City and Park City ― was a very different animal than today. 


Ruth’s Diner classic meatloaf meal. Photos by John Taylor.

When I moved to Utah 30 years ago, the dining scene here and especially in Salt Lake City and Park City was a very different animal than today. 

Looking back over the past three decades got me thinking about how differently we eat now than we did then. The monster “fast-casual” restaurant trend that has blown up in the past few years wasn’t really happening in 1992, unless perhaps we count the locally-owned Training Table, which I understand is attempting a comeback. More generally, there simply weren’t the plethora of chain and franchise restaurants back then. We didn’t have a single Popeyes, In-N-Out, Chipotle, Jersey Mike’s, or even a Starbucks.

Aside from the big boys like McDonald’s, Arby’s, Burger King, Domino’s, etc., ad nauseam, the restaurants I remember dining at 30 years ago were mostly independent ones. Granted, the food wasn’t exactly cutting edge, but there were a few risk-takers out there. Do you remember The Barking Frog in Park City and downtown SLC? Taking a stab at the contemporary Southwestern cuisine that was trendy at the time Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill, Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken’s Border Grill, and Mark Miller’s Coyote Cafe come to mind The Barking Frog was one of the first places I saw garnish dishes with edible flowers and offer eclectic eats like jalapeño lasagne. 

Gastronomy Inc. straddled the old and new with its classic New Yorker and Market Street restaurants (old), and more contemporary dining destinations like Baci Trattoria and Cafe Pierpont. Firmly planted in continental soil was Le Parisien, Max Mercier’s beloved outpost, serving up French classics like Chateaubriand, quiche Lorraine, and escargots de Bourgogne. The standard fare wasn’t exactly light. 

HSL’s General Tso’s Style Cauliflower.

Two or three decades ago the only place you were likely to find avocados were in guacamole. Avocado toast was not a thing, nor was General Tso’s-style cauliflower or blistered shishito peppers. Long-lived eateries like Ruth’s Diner and The Dodo served comfort classics such as beef stroganoff, meatloaf, quiche, pot roast, chicken fried steak, and items of that ilk, and still do. 

Through the years, many fine restaurants came and went. Among those I miss the most are Capitol Cafe, Globe by Moonlight, Mr Z’s, Zola, Tavola, Cafe dell’ Arte, Mikado, Firenze, Santa Fe, Bill & Nada’s, Au Bon Appetit, L’Avenue, Absolute!, Brumby’s, D.B. Cooper’s, Cafe Creole in the ZCMI food court, Acme Burger, Cafe Bacchus, Tipica, Dijon, Ikigai, Forage, and in my opinion, the most thrilling restaurant to ever grace Utah’s dining scene: The Metropolitan.

But restaurateurs are a tenacious bunch and, even through the pandemic, new and exciting restaurants have either stayed open or even opened anew. So today, instead of warm breakfast brains at Bill & Nada’s we might be treated to the farm-to-table fare at restaurants like SLC Eatery, Table X, Tupelo, Firewood, Pago, Copper Onion, Hell’s Backbone Grill, Pizzeria 712, Finca, From Scratch, Communal, and so many others. 

Some dining institutions like Log Haven, Caffe Molise, Grappa, Chimayo, La Calle, Riverhorse, and others have withstood the test of time and have thrived for two and sometimes three decades or more. Their cuisine has evolved with the times and it is quite common at many, if not most of today’s eateries old and new to accommodate the dietary restrictions of their guests. Vegetarian, vegan, dairy-free, and gluten-free options are standard on many restaurant menus now, something that was unheard of decades ago with the possible exception of forward-thinking businesses like Oasis Cafe, Vertical Diner and Sage’s. 

Even local bars and distilleries are getting in on the act. Grid City Beer Works, for example, has rockin’ vegan/vegetarian offerings like a vegan Rachel sandwich with seitan, Bangkok Thai bowl, a vegan burger, vegan smoked chicken wings, and more. 

At Beehive Distilling, the eclectic bar menu includes tofu sliders, vegan potato tacos, and a “smacked” cucumber salad for those wanting to eschew meats. 

And items like roasted cauliflower, seared shishitos, radicchio salad and roasted mushroom toast adorn the menu at Copper Common. There are plenty of others also raising their bar bites game to accommodate a wider wishlist of food preferences. 

So, while I mourn the passing of restaurants I knew and loved decades ago, I believe that overall we are eating healthier and better than ever. Restaurant food today is far more interesting and innovative than it was when I arrived in Utah in 1992, and judging from all the new eateries recently opened or set to open soon, the dining scene here just looks to get better and better. I’d bet dinner on it.


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