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Higher Calling

The Roof is one of downtown's most venerated restaurants ... but is it more than just a buffet?

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ALEX SPRINGER
  • Alex Springer

As I've spent the last few years securing my reputation as a scourge of greater Salt Lake's buffet tables and dessert bars, it was only a matter of time before I set my sights on The Roof (15 E. South Temple, 10th Floor, 801-539-1911). It remains a constant, living paradox between the worlds of fine dining and all-you-can-eat buffets—and I've done enough buffet legwork to figure out what makes this Utah institution tick.

I, like many adults who went to local high schools along the Wasatch Front, was first introduced to The Roof thanks to parental advice. When we asked our moms and dads for fancy places to take our dates, they'd suggest The Roof without skipping a beat. We didn't know it at the time, but the reason our parents were so quick to suggest this place was so they could rely on the golden glare of Moroni high atop the Salt Lake Temple to burn the thoughts of premarital sex from our minds. Even so, we sure thought we were hot shit when we used the cash we earned from Taco Bell and Sam Goody to buy an expensive dinner for two before dancing the night away in a glittering high school gymnasium.

I suppose one could make the argument that I never found my way back to The Roof because I like to save moments of nostalgia from getting crapped on by the adult in me, who's already pissed off because I spent more than 12 bucks on a buffet. Regardless, my internal buffet completionist urged me forward into this hazy trove of adolescent memories and post-religious angst, so forward I did go.

The place still gets busy enough to necessitate booking a reservation a few days in advance, even if you're planning on visiting during the week. I asked my wife to be my date, and she obliged—even though I dispensed with the sloppy bedroom decorations and half-assed riddles that typically precede a visit to The Roof. We strolled through the old-fashioned gaudiness of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building and headed to the top floor, which is one of The Roof's primary amenities. The view diners get of Temple Square and the downtown skyline is absolutely gorgeous, especially just around sunset.

Our servers were pleasantly chatty and were happy to outline the current buffet lineup, sparing us the plateless reconnaissance mission that most buffets require. For $46 per person, diners get access to a carving station with thick slabs of prime rib, sliced chicken breast with lemon butter and sun-dried tomatoes, grilled steak with mushroom demi-glace, buttermilk mashed potatoes, apple bacon cauliflower and sautéed asparagus. The carving station is flanked by a copiously stocked dessert bar and a side bar with gouda mac and cheese, soy-glazed salmon and house-made meatballs along with a charcuterie bar of cured meats and cheeses.

The spread is a cut above traditional buffet fare, and the snappy service when it comes to removing used plates and empty glasses is worth the extra coinage, but the menu does feel rather inhibited. Prime rib, hallowed be its name, is the patron saint of any buffet, so we can leave that alone. The chicken, steak and salmon were all very good—each item tends to get dried out in a buffet setting, though these entrées got all kinds of help from their respective sauces—but they continue to evoke Sunday dinner menus that have been feeding nuclear families since the 1970s.

It's a clear case of knowing their audience—serving dressed up versions of American classics is what keeps The Roof's clientele happy—but imagine the culinary ripples that would appear if the chefs started to experiment with the menu. Bridging the cultural gap between Swedish meatballs and Mexican albóndigas or even adding Southern staples like shrimp and grits or étouffée could do wonders for the palates of locals who see The Roof as a paragon of fine dining.

Although The Roof will always be a culinary paradox, it's managed to maintain its shaky balance between fine dining establishment and gluttonous feedbag with confidence over the years. I will heartily recommend a visit simply for that perfect view, but I can't help but make that recommendation without a small hint of irony. I love buffets with all my doughy heart but trying to class them up erodes the spirit and charm that make them lovable in the first place.

AT A GLANCE
Open: Monday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m.;
Friday-Saturday, 5-10:30 p.m.
Best bet: Anything allowed to simmer
Can't miss: Getting creative with the dessert bar

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