It’s well known to people in the restaurant biz that, as Park City restaurateur Bill White once said to me, a successful restaurant is built like a three-legged stool, with service, ambiance and food representing the three legs. Knock one of those legs out, and the stool tips over. Naturally, there are other factors—a good wine list, for example—that can matter, but food, service and ambiance are critical.
Naturally, I care most about the food, and you probably do, too. I’ve eaten food from street carts in Oaxaca that was more memorable than meals in highfalutin’ Parisian restaurants. However, it is also true that with restaurants, as in life, you only get one chance to make a first impression. And that’s where ambiance comes in. Customers begin judging a business the minute they walk through the door. So décor, design, lighting, music (if any), artwork and all the things that go into creating restaurant ambiance are important.
In too many restaurants, ambiance is an afterthought. Not so in the ones that follow, where ambiance is a critical component to the dining experience, right along with superb food and service.
Back to Nature
We Utahns live amid boundless natural beauty, and there are a handful of restaurants that really excel in integrating nature’s bounty into the dining experience. The 20 acres that serve as the grounds for La Caille (9565 S. Wasatch Blvd., Sandy, 801-942-1751, LaCaille.com) couldn’t be more lovely, which is why so many couples decide to get hitched there. The gardens are drop-dead gorgeous—as is the faux chÃ¢teau restaurant—and how many Utah restaurants can you count that have their own vineyard?
Meanwhile, up in Millcreek Canyon, Log Haven (6451 E. Millcreek Canyon Road, 801-272-8255, Log-Haven.com), in Margo Provost’s restored log mansion, sports a dog-friendly outdoor amphitheater in which to dine, along with waterfalls and magnificent views of the surrounding Wasatch National Forest.
Down in Boulder, Hell’s Backbone Grill (20 N. Highway 12, 435-335-7464, HellsBackboneGrill.com) is an oasis abutting the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, complete with a “no-harm” organic farm that supplies many of the ingredients for the delectable dishes served there. The breathtaking beauty of the drive into Boulder is just an added bonus.
When dining at Tuscany (2832 E. 6200 South, Salt Lake City, 801-277-9919, TuscanySLC.com), especially in warm weather, you’ll indeed feel like you’ve escaped the city and landed in the Tuscan countryside. Built in the style of a northern Italian Alps chalet, the restaurant itself is awesome. But the patios—with their spectacular landscaping, wooded setting, wrought iron, stonework and towering views of the Wasatch Front—add a priceless component to the excellent food and wine served there.
Pretty & Posh
Probably the most interesting restaurant in Salt Lake City from an architecture and design standpoint was Metropolitan. Well, Valter Nassi has taken that eye-popping eatery and made it his own, with Valter’s Osteria (173 W. 300 South, 801-521-4563, ValtersOsteria.com). As at his former restaurant, Cucina Toscana, tables are dressed with crisp white linens, gleaming crystal glassware and fresh flowers. Service is a bit more continental and formal than at most places, and you wouldn’t feel out of place wearing your tux or evening gown to dinner before the symphony or opera.
Feel like playing dress-up in Park City? Allow me to recommend Silver Restaurant (508 Main, 435-940-1000, SilverRestaurant.com). Sure, you could show up in your ski gear, but Silver, with its dazzling décor—silver actually streaks through the walls—and progressive cuisine, is the perfect place to strut your haute couture.
And although Chef Will Pliler’s menu stays fresh and up to date, there’s a timeless quality that The New Yorker (60 W. Market St. [340 South], Salt Lake City, 801-363-0166, NewYorkerSLC.com) offers: the vibe and ambiance of a chic bygone era, when people dressed for dinner and lingered at tables for hours on end. Elegance lives!
Maybe you’d like to get away from the modern world for an evening and reboot your soul with a more rustic reality. Ogden’s Timbermine (1701 Park Blvd., 801-393-2155, Timbermine.com) is a rustic, Disney-esque blast from the past, complete with a collection of 3,000 mini-booze bottles, stuffed animals, mannequins of miners, natural wood everywhere and even booths lit by lanterns.
On the more serious side, the cuisine at Deer Valley Resort’s Fireside Dining (Empire Canyon Lodge, 9200 Marsac Ave., 435-645-6632, DeerValley.com) is infinitely appealing, as is the rustic ambiance. Wednesday through Saturday nights during the ski season (opening Dec. 14 this year), Deer Valley’s Empire Lodge morphs into a European Alps-style eatery, featuring dinner courses served from the lodge’s five stone fireplaces. Start with warm Swiss raclette and work your way through the all-you-can-eat bounty of housemade stews, fire-roasted leg of lamb, fresh-baked breads and, of course, the wildly popular dessert fondues.
In Big Cottonwood Canyon, Silver Fork Lodge (11332 E. Big Cottonwood Canyon Road, 801-533-9977, SilverForkLodge.com) has been delivering Ã¼ber-rustic atmosphere since 1943, complete with huge stone fireplaces, log-cabin construction and beautiful views of the surrounding Cache National Forest. Plus, Elmo’s meatloaf might change your life.
Warm & Cozy
If you’re fed up with eating in converted airplane hangars, allow me to recommend a quartet of restaurants that are a bit more intimate. The Paris Bistro (1500 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City, 801-486-5585, TheParis.net) isn’t tiny, but the warm French brasserie/bistro-style décor—right down to the zinc bar—and comforting food like duck confit with lentils makes Eric DeBonis’ signature restaurant a must-visit.
Just across the street, Fresco Italian Cafe (1513 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City, 801-486-1300, FrescoItalianCafe.com) is a magical place, whether you dine inside the snug converted house or out in the starlit courtyard in warm weather. You might come for the romantic appeal of Fresco, but you’ll stay for Chef Logen Crew’s killer cooking.
Great food and great wine are the cornerstones at Pago (878 S. 900 East, Salt Lake City, 801-532-0777, PagoSLC.com), but the cozy, almost elbow-to-elbow dining experience there makes you feel like you’re part of a special club. So let’s just keep this between us, OK?
Finally, situated in a house at Holladay’s Knudsen Corners is Franck’s Restaurant (6263 S. Holladay Blvd., 801-274-6264, FrancksFood.com), where soothing Mediterranean colors and a warm fire complement the award-winning cuisine.