Take everything you’ve heard about the eating and drinking scene in Salt Lake City with, well, a grain of salt. Although this mountain metropolis is best known for its stick-to-your-ribs America fare and strict liquor laws due to its conservative (mostly Mormon) population, Salt Lake City is also slowly making a name for itself for its bourgeoning cocktail culture, esoteric ethnic food offerings, and fine dining establishments. Salt Lake City is no Sin City, but there is still plenty of delicious fun to be had.
The mass labyrinth of hiking paths surrounding the city are hard to resist, so rise early to fuel up properly before hitting the trails. New Yorkers or anyone with a penchant for boiled rings of dough will appreciate The Bagel Project, home to chewy, addictive caramelized onion, raisin, sesame, and poppy seed bagels as well as mandel bread and bialys (but don’t call them bagels without the hole; they’re their own beast).
For more substantial porcine protein, head to Pig & A Jelly Jar, where large crowds of locals chow down on creative plates such as the creole pork belly benedict (poached eggs with braised pork belly, baked beans, kale, served over biscuits with a tomato creole sauce) and the “kitchen sink” omelet loaded with crumbled sausage, bacon, diced tomatoes, red peppers, onions, kale, provolone cheese.
If drinking before noon is your thang, try the PBR Mary, a tongue-tingling concoction of PBR Lager, house bloody mary mix, and garnished with a cajun sea salt rim, lime, and pickled green beans. Straw Market is the place to enjoy big-as-your-face cinnamon rolls in SLC, but their fluffy crepes (try the ham and cheese or the orange) and breakfast burritos will also easily compete for your attention.
The sunny, airy open kitchen at Rose Establishment delivers soothing bowls of steaming porridge brimming with rolled oats, steamed milk, tea-marinated fruits, as well as breakfast tartines, the best of which is “The Weekender” (butternut squash ricotta, soft-boiled egg, fennel, balsamic reduction, toasted five-seed bread). Caffeine addicts should try the “Serious Drink” (drip coffee, lapsang souchang tea, chestnut flower honey, and rosemary tinctures); those who don’t need to dial up it quite that much should seek out the selection of the loose-leaf teas.
For your mid-day meal in this mountain town, sample cuisine from beyond the crested peaks. Delve into Saffron Valley for Indian street foods and curries from all regions of the subcontinent. Start with some crunchy “dahi poppers”, mashed potato in spherical crisps abed fruit chutneys with sweet yogurt, then move on to a one of their dosas (lentil and rice crepes) filled with different combinations of vegetables, proteins, and spices, and then finish by splitting a plate of the Malabar goat in a ginger, garlic, and coconut milk sauce.
Seek gustatory satisfaction in another part of Asia at Saigon Sandwich, which many claim serves the best lemongrass pork banh mi in Salt Lake, in addition to tofu and brisket pho and rice bowls. Aristo’s blue and white-tile interior is a charming setting for a lazy lunch and their menu of Greek classics such as boureki (zucchini and potatoes layered with feta and athotyro cheeses cooked in a clay pot) and taramosalata (fish roe dip with extra-virgin olive oil, and potatoes) beg to be slowly shared with companions.
You can keep it traditional for your main course and order the kokkinisto, a falling-off-the-bone lamb shank luxuriating in a red wine tomato sauce on orzo, the kotpoulo, a chicken cutlet stuffed with spinach and feta and dressed in a mushroom sauce, or opt for the unorthodox albeit playful “Aristo’s Original,” a soft taco filled with pulled lamb, greek salad, pico de gallo, mint, and feta.
If strict vegetarians or vegan be amongst your party, go to Bud’s, which has a bevy of ethnic options catering toward the aforementioned diets, such as a spicy, smoky “taco salad” (barbacoa jackfruit and black beans on a spring greens and cabbage with a warm flour tortilla, guacamole, tomato, red onion, and ginger sour cream) and a wicked pesto sub sandwich made with grilled soy chicken tossed with walnut basil pesto, spring greens, tomato, red onion, and balsamic vinaigrette drizzle on toasted sourdough bun.
Rustic, romantic Log Haven has charmed the pants off of many (literally—it’s a popular wedding site) for more than 80 years, and today serves par excellence appetizers and main courses featuring regional proteins (i.e. game meats) and plants, such as “Alpine Nachos” (chips layered with forest mushrooms, speck, and fontina cheese), elk carpaccio, and bolognese pasta with shredded boar, elk, and bison.
Although it may be challenging to even think of dessert after such a filling supper, try at least a bite of the S’more Petit Tart with whiskey ice cream. For a more sea rather than land-centric selection plates, go to Current Fish and Oyster, which, as its name suggests, specializes in just that. The seafood tower, with oysters, shrimp, mussels, and lobster tails, is an Instagram-worthy crustacean castle perfect for special occasions.
Less opulent but equally commendable are the smoked clam dip, “two minute” ceviche, and roasted sea scallops with snow peas beech mushrooms laced with carrot-ginger nage. A most memorable Mediterranean meal can be had Café Molise, whose location makes it an especially prime spot to launch an evening of tomfoolery downtown. Antipasti such as the polenta with wild mushrooms, caramelized onions, and gorgonzola or the butternut squash ravioli are particularly refreshing if your SLC dining heretofore has involved meat, meat, and more meat.
Die-hard carnivores, however, will find little lacking with the orecchiette with Italian sausage or the pork tenderloin slathered in black mission fig compote. Finally, for Wagnerian portions of German fare that will make you sing (and eat) your heart out, grab a seat at Siegfried’s Delicatessen. You’ll need to order the bratwurst, the spätzle, the goulash, the red cabbage, the honeybee cake….and then an Uber to haul your very sated self back to the hotel.
Whatever your daytime plans, make sure to add Passion Flour Patisserie to your itinerary and purchase their francophilic sweets in bulk so you have something nosh on while sight-seeing and when you get that late-night sugar craving following a bar crawl. The chocolate mousse infused with pine and crowned with coconut whipped cream and fresh berries is all earthy decadence, while the strawberry Chantilly cake is lighter but just as luscious.
And speaking of necessary over-ordering, Ruby Snap’s diverse selection cookies make wonderful presents for the folks back home and therefore, you know, really must be bought by the dozen. All named after famous femmes/pin-up girls, cookies from Ruby’s line-up include gems like the “Frida (Kahlo)” (chocolate with a chile de árbol ganache center, topped with cinnamon toasted pepitas); the “Tommy” (maple bacon chocolate chip with pure maple glaze and sea salt); and the “Judy” (velvety orange dough topped with a buttery cream cheese frosting).
Share your plans to visit Salt Lake City and dollars to donuts someone will offer, “Good luck getting a drink in that town.” Au contraire, you should reply, because despite some truly byzantine restrictions around booze, Salt Lake City is the site of much more than a handful of pubs, cocktail lounges, and wine bars all ready and willing to pour you your adult beverage of choice.
At The Garage you can enjoy generous beer specials in casual live music venue beer specials plus a handful of cute bar bites such as Mormon funeral potatoes, a true regional specialty combining shredded potatoes topped with cheddar cheese, bacon and scallions, rolled in a cornflake crust, “baptized in hot oil”, and served with ranch dressing.
More formal and sophisticated libations and atmosphere can be found at Copper Common where is mixology is form of high art. Ask your bartender for a recommendation; otherwise, I suggest the fruity, fragrant “Rosie the Riveter” (hayman’s sloe gin, ginger liqueur, rosemary, grapefruit, lime) or the “Corsair’s Retreat” (12 smith & cross navy rum, velvet falernum, byrrh, lemon).
I was born in Alexandria, Virginia, grew up in central Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, and now calls Houston, Texas home. After graduating from Harvard University with a degree in English, I earned a PhD in Victorian literature from Rice University. I currently serve as a culinary consultant, food historian, and travel/food critic for various print and online outlets. My exploits can be found at www.brideyoleary.com.