Evening dinner review
Sometimes it’s tough following the local restaurant scene so keenly. Okay, “tough” is a slight exaggeration, it’s not exactly like working in a mine or anything. But sometimes, the analytical nature of the whole thing means it’s hard to dine out without some preconceptions. Due to following local food reviews so closely, I usually form a detailed idea of a restaurant will be like in my mind, before I walk inside and sit down.
Bay Leaf Cafe is a great example of this. By the time I finally dined at Bay Leaf recently, I had already heard so much feedback, opinion, and information, I felt as if I knew exactly what to expect. I had heard nothing but universal praise. When we sat down to dine, I was expecting so much already, it probably wasn’t fair to expect Bay Leaf Cafe to hold up to the dreamy image I had in my mind.
For those of you who don’t know about Bay Leaf Cafe, let me bring you up to speed. It opened downtown in late 2009, with a couple of very unique concepts, namely the menu and the opening hours. The menu is a mix of comfort foods straddling both East and West. Meatloaf and chicken fried chicken sit happily on the menu alongside congee and adobo chicken.
The second interesting element of Bay Leaf Cafe are the operating hours. The cafe is open Monday through Thursday from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., and then Friday from 6 a.m. clear through till Sunday at 6 p.m., offering breakfast and lunch for the downtown office crowd during the week and 24-hour dining through the weekend for late night revelers. Denny’s no longer needs to be your only 4am Saturday morning option.
First impressions of the service at Bay Leaf Cafe weren’t great. There were approximately three or four tables of people in the restaurant. It wasn’t at all near capacity or particularly busy. We walked in and waited at the entrance ready to be greeted. We noticed a sign asking us to wait to be seated and after hanging around confused for a few moments, a waiter clear over at the other side of the restaurant, finally took notice of us and pointed arms length at a table. Walking over to say hello was seemingly a bit too much of an effort for him. We weren’t completely sure what his gesticulation implied, so we walked on over. It appeared he meant that was to be our table for the night, although he still kept completely silent, as menus were tossed onto the table and he quickly departed. Okay, then. (We later learned that he could in fact speak as he shouted random requests to the musician performing that night at regular intervals.) Thankfully, our actual waiter, who was entirely more friendly, appropriate, and verbose approached the table next.
The general mood of the cafe is casual and relaxed, unless of course like us you are seated right under the nose of the musician. Despite many tables being free we were seated inches away. I think we were still a little in shock from our abrupt ‘greeting’. I sheepishly grinned at Wendi, who isn’t thrilled or delighted by live performers during meals, as we started mulling over our menus. We had that creeping feeling that we might regret having come through the door.
Our waiter was engaging and energetic though, and things started to look up. We ordered a jasmine tea ($1.50) each and placed our food orders. As our waiter walked away, we noted he didn’t tell us about the day’s specials we had noticed (and since forgotten) on the blackboard up front. Darn.
We started with the Fried Pickles ($4.99). Our waiter remarked upon our ordering these, that they were his favourite. After a few bites, we both saw why. Indeed we both promised to each have no more than a few bites, given the salty/fried goodness of the dish. Several ‘oh just one more then’ moments later and we had demolished the whole plate, with lots of guilty pleasure. Far from the worlds healthiest dish, but dipped in the accompanying aioli for extra unhealthiness, oh so good.
For our main dishes, I went with the Chicken Fried Chicken ($8.99) with sides of hoppin john and mashed potatoes. Wendi rejoiced in breakfast for dinner and went for the Goat Cheese Mushroom Omelet, grits, and english muffin ($8.99)
My chicken fried chicken was great. Being a complete novice to the “chicken fried” concept, I didn’t know what to expect. Wendi mentioned she thought the chicken might be ground and then fried, but instead it was a moist chicken breast with an enjoyable crunchy breading, perfect. The creamy gravy topping was deliciously rich. The two sides brought mixed reactions. The mashed potatoes were wonderfully creamy with small hunks of bacon scattered on top. A healthy meal this was not. The hoppin john was a first for me. I’ve never tasted this dish before, but I felt it needed to be a lot more spicy than it was, so judicious use of Tabasco was in order.
Wendi described her omelet as average. She enjoyed her cheesy grits, but commented that they should be described as cheesy grits on the menu because she prefers her grits sweet with butter and touch of maple syrup.
Things went from bad to better throughout the meal. Service remained bright and the guy on guitar, who was quite good, but again, live entertainment just isn’t out thing, soon packed up and left us able to actually talk to one another. Water (served in mason jars) was kept full and the check came up nice and fast. Our meal of an appetizer, two main courses, and two teas was a pocket friendly $28.01 before tax and tip. Heck, I don’t think there was anything on the menu much more than $10. The place is very affordable. Neither of us completely cleaned our plates either, portions are filling without being over the top.
Initial service gripes aside, our main server was attentive and genuinely friendly. The food came up pretty quickly, and I loved every bite. If I hadn’t heaped on so much expectation prior to my visit, I would have been far less disappointed with a few of the issues we had. I’m assuming for the mainstay of their business hours (breakfast and lunches) there is no live music.
Speaking of the cafe’s hours, I’m still not convinced. The continual weekend opening is brave, does SLC really have the foot traffic downtown to support the concept. Moreover, only opening for dinner service ‘properly’ on Friday and Saturday just doesn’t feel right to me. I have an issue with restaurants that seem to open only on a whim. If you walk past at 5 p.m. on a Thursday, and note the Bay Leaf Cafe closed, are you really going to come back at the same time on a Friday night, or will you assume it’s closed?
The Bay Leaf Cafe takes the traditional American diner concept, throws it in the blender with a variety of Asian fare, and the result is tasty comfort food, a casual atmosphere and very reasonable prices. If I worked downtown, I’d certainly be checking them out for breakfast and lunch. Needless to say, next time I find myself with a late night/early morning craving after a weekend night out in SLC, I’ll definitely turn to Bay Leaf Cafe before considering Denny’s, which can only be a good thing.
Bay Leaf Cafe
159 South Main Street, Salt Lalt City, 84111
(801) 359 8490
Hi, I’m Stuart, nice to meet you! I’m the founder, writer and wrangler at Gastronomic SLC and The Utah Review; I’m also a former restaurant critic of more than five years, working for the Salt Lake Tribune. I’ve worked extensively with other local publications from Utah Stories through to Salt Lake Magazine and Visit Salt Lake.
I’m a multiple-award winning journalist and have covered the Utah dining scene for more than a decade. I’m largely fueled by Uinta Cutthroat, alliteration and the use of too many big words I don’t understand. I ate all the pies.