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Dinner and a Poe

Mystique Dining at Gardner Village is the tacky night out you didn't know you needed.

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COURTESY PHOTO
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When I was a recently returned LDS missionary, I often thought about what parts of Utah I would show to people visiting from outside the country. I found the idea that someone who lacked the context of Utahns' everyday routine endlessly fascinating. Although I never got this opportunity, it did open up my mind to the sights, sounds and food that could properly distill Utah's peculiar essence for someone who had not grown up here. My list of quintessential things to do and places to see often changed, but West Jordan's Gardner Village (1100 W. 7800 South, 801-566-8903, gardnervillage.com) remains in the No. 1 spot. If you wanted to dig deeper and pick out the event that boils down the essence of Gardner Village, then you most certainly need to pay a visit to Mystique Dining (mystiquedining.com).

It would have been easy for Gardner Village to fall by the wayside as a historical tourist trap for local pioneer enthusiasts, but it's become one of the Wasatch Front's most popular haunts. Back in the late 1800s, a pioneer named Archibald Gardner and his family built their home and industry on the plot and it grew from there. In the late 1970s, a local entrepreneur named Nancy Long purchased the property and decided to turn the area into a commercial district. It started with a furniture store called Country Furniture and Gifts—now CF Home—and Archibald's Restaurant, which opened for business 10 years later within the confines of the renovated flour mill. Over the years, Gardner Village has continued to expand, and the property now contains several locally owned shops, event venues and cafés.

Right around this time of the year, Gardner Village puts on its resting witch face for the annual autumn and Halloween celebration known as Witchfest. It's basically open season for all local moms to break out their costumes and shop while their kids get their faces painted and chase ducks around. In a nutshell, it's a concentrated dose of wholesome family fun that's so Utah I could puke—and I say that with nothing but love. Yes, I love this crazy place with its overpriced shops, large but mediocre brownies and repurposed barnyard aesthetic. That said, how could I not want to visit Mystique Dining, for a five-course meal in which a magician dazzles guests with sleights of hand?

In keeping with the seasonal spirit, Mystique Dining's tone has shifted to the slightly macabre with Manifestations: A Magically Haunted Tribute to Edgar Allan Poe. It's OK if you're wondering how a magic show could possibly pay tribute to the originator of goth lifestyle—my wife and I thought the same thing when we arrived to the Chamber Dining Hall. Once our host opened the doors, the initial visual was unexpectedly stunning. Each table setting was furnished with silver chargers and a bubbling concoction of liquid bathed in an eerie green light, billowing with dry ice vapors. Once you're seated and get a closer look, it's easy to mistake this witchy brew for your beverage—it's not. It's merely an artistic serving piece for spiral-sliced apples that can be dipped in the caramel that's waiting for you when you sit down.

To be fair, calling apple slices and caramel one of five courses feels a little sketchy, but it really doesn't matter. You've found yourself in a baroque dining hall filled with wall-to-wall creepy knickknacks and you're waiting for a magician to show up. It's like being at a birthday party for an eccentric millionaire in which one of the guests will be unexpectedly murdered. The next few spookily named courses that arrived—witch toes that were actually bacon-wrapped dates and bloody beet salad—were fine but overabundant with sweetness. The main course was a choice of prime rib, chicken, vegetarian lasagna or mac and cheese, of which I ordered the first. While we waited for our food to arrive, a bust occasionally came to life and recited one of Poe's verses. Nothing can really compare with wolfing down some bleeding prime rib while a haunted statue recites The Masque of the Red Death, but only if your appetite isn't hampered by excessive kitsch. Once dinner is over, the evening's magician arrives. I don't want to spoil the routine, but suffice to say it was goofy and entertaining—exactly what I was hoping for.

Mystique Dining offers two shows per night every day of the week, plus a Saturday matinee. Tickets are $60, which isn't terrible for the dinner and show that you get. If you have any affection for Utah's distinct mélange of tacky fun and atmospheric dining, spending the day at Gardner Village with an evening reservation at Mystique Dining is one of the best things you can do this time of year.

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