Navigating the Wilds of Utah’s Dining Scene
Which Salt Lake Eateries Won't Freak Your Out-of-State Friends the Freak Out
Entertaining out of towners can either be a stressful exercise of self-reflection or an opportunity to educate visitors on what makes Utah great and a little bit weird. Given that our state isn't necessarily known as a go-to culinary destination, coupled with some of our more quirky cultural aspects, finding the perfect restaurant to impress a guest can be a tad difficult.
I've found that I can remove much of the stress by thinking of myself more like a safari guide giving curious tourists a safe look at animals in their natural habitats. Your job as a guide is to keep the guests safe while giving them an entertaining and informative look into the natural habitats and practices of the native species. Get too close, and they may come face to face with a lion—which for the sake of this poorly thought-out metaphor is a particularly pushy sales bro in a tight corporate branded tee, or they may be surrounded by a pack of hyenas—a group of young children who were let loose by their Diet Coke sipping moms in Zupas. However, get your job right, and you can leave your guests a bit educated, entertained, and with a full belly, while preserving our habitat of locally-owned restaurants that badly need our help.
Here are a few suggestions on where and when to take out-of-staters that will give them a glimpse into the growing Utah dining scene without making them question the life choices that brought or have kept you here.
Breakfast will probably be the most manageable and least stressful meal for you to find a place to feed your guests. Our much-maligned alcohol laws won't be quite as noticeable in the wee hours of the morning, and there are quite a lot of really great breakfast joints. As long as you avoid your stereotypical diner-wannabes where high school theater kids are leaving ten hours after their post-performance high, you'll probably be okay.
Eggs in the City (Millcreek) is my first recommendation. It recently relocated to a much larger space making getting a table much easier. Though I will somewhat miss standing in the four-car-capacity parking lot with a free cup of coffee, I still really love this place. There's nothing super fancy about Eggs In The City, which is perhaps why I like it so much—it doesn't try too hard. It just makes an excellent breakfast for a reasonable price in a relaxed atmosphere.
If you want to introduce a hint of quirk to start your day, hit up Hub & Spoke Diner (Liberty Heights). Featuring the dishware of late-90s Village Inn with the furnishings from a Modern Display showroom, this place has all the classics. Benedicts, biscuits and gravy, and pancakes all grace the menu, as well as a few dishes you don't see in Salt Lake very often like Kentucky Hot Browns, Chicken and Waffles, Sour Cream Flapjacks, and Shrimp and Grits.
Other great options: Ruth's Diner (Emigration Canyon), Pig and a Jelly Jar (9th & 9th and Holladay), Sweet Lake (Ballpark & Draper), Gourmandise (Downtown & Draper), Rye (Downtown)
Avoid: Jims, the two still-existing Village Inns, Black Bear Diner, and Dennys.
Lunch might be where we begin to run into a few problems that might annoy your friends. Suppose you try and visit any standard soup, salad, and sandwich joint. In that case, you may be running into a situation where your guest feels as though they are babysitting the children of a group of young moms, rather than enjoying a leisurely bite to eat.
If I'm honest, my go-to lunch place is Harmons in these days of working from home. And yes, I was frequenting my “neighborhood grocer” long before Jen Shah's assistant made it iconic. However, I can understand why one might not want to take a visiting guest to a grocery store for lunch. So if you are downtown, anywhere along Salt Lake City's Main Street will serve you well mid-day. This includes Whiskey Street, White Horse, Eva’s Bakery, Lake Effect, Ginger Street and Maxwells. Some of these are 21 and over bars and are at their peak at night, but take a visit during the day and you'll get a much calmer visit with the same, if not better, quality drink and food.
Aside from that, I'm a huge fan of true delis—not the wannabes listed in my avoid section below—but real delis. You get healthy-ish fresh food without it being a mediocre salad and without the babysitting requirement. Salt Lake has a few great ones: Feldmans (Sugarhouse), Siegfrieds (Downtown), Caputos (Downtown & Holladay), and Grove Market (Ballpark). Just know that seating can be a bit restricted even in non-COVID times.
Other options: Slackwater (Sandy & Ogden), Sawadee (Avenues), Taqueria 27 (Downtown, Foothills, Murray, and Lehi), Oak Wood Fire Grill (Draper), Montauk Bistro (Draper)
Avoid: Zupas, Kneaders, Cubbys, R&R BBQ, and J Dawgs
I'd venture to say that more often than not, if you're entertaining, you're doing it at dinner time. This is where things can get really tricky. There are many factors that go into picking a good restaurant from time of year, time of day, alcohol consumption, and obviously, personal preference. So my suggestions really are based on what kind of experience you want to give and what side of Utah you want to show off.
If your guests will be most comfortable with a casual meal, and may find themselves interested in witnessing the mating rituals of college-aged youths who will likely be engaged by the end of the meal, we've got a bunch of them. Think Hires Big H for burgers (Trolley Square, West Valley, and Fort Union), Gourmandise for an accessible entree (Downtown, Draper), Flatbread for casual Italian (Sugarhouse), Ginger Street for Asian fusion (Downtown), Slackwater for pizza (Sandy & Ogden), and Porcupine Grill for pub fare (University and Cottonwood Heights).
On the other hand, if you want to show a bit more of the lively side of things, we've got a few breweries with great and often inexpensive food. Wasatch Brewery (Sugarhouse), Bewilder Brewing (Downtown), Proper Brewing (Central City), Bohemian (Midvale), and Strap Tank (Lehi & Springville).
And lastly, for those bougie friends who enjoy the finer things in life and who may have a snobbish belief that Utah's finest exports all have the last name Osmond, we've got plenty of establishments that are sure to impress. Table X (Brickyard), Current (Downtown), Cultivate (Draper), Copper Onion (Downtown), HSL (Downtown), and Pago (9th & 9th) are fantastic.
Ultimately, where you take your friends will likely depend on their personal taste and what kind of mood you're seeking. And while we may not live in a food mecca, we locals who can bypass the approximately 392 Chilis, Olive Gardens, and Texas Roadhouses know that there is a fantastic (and growing) selection of local restaurants that are eager to seat you.