It’s the time of the year that I usually put together the yearly run down of the dining scene – you can see previous years here: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016. The yearly State Of The Plate is a distillation of every best of list and readers choice award. This would have been the fifth installment of the data-driven breakdown, but alas, given the year we’ve all had it just doesn’t seem appropriate. After all, this year has been about survival and change.
That said, it felt equally wrong to let the end of the year slip by without the usual end of year recap show, you know the type, best of bits and faces missed. So here’s our version of that – still hanging on in there, but evolved for 2020.
2020 dishes of the year
At least as according to the people hitting the like button over on our Instagram account – these are the most popular dishes I shared; a mix of take out, delivery and home cooking that sums up 2020 perfectly.
10 | Beltex Meats
While grabbing my Thanksgiving bird from Beltex Meats (T-Day 2021 you will be hearing me banging on about his constantly) I also snapped up some pork rilletes and Table X bread. The sweetly porky hit of this charcuterie classic blew my proverbial socks off. I’ve eaten all across the world and plenty of Michelin one, two and three star joints, and this was up there with the best snooty-French food I’ve had. Those who say SLC doesn’t have great food are just simpletons.
9 | Wow Bao
Ghost kitchens, host kitchens, dark kitchens. Just a few of the new concepts we wrapped our minds around in 2020. Wow Bao is the perfect example of the rapidly changing dining landscape. The Chinese bao brand is a ‘drop in’ concept for businesses with spare kitchen capacity; the Utah operation is cranked out of Sizzler kitchens believe it or not, then wrangled to your door by Dashers and Hubbers.
8 | Oquirrh
This turkey katsu was a blink and you’ll miss it special at the always creative Oquirrh. If you managed to catch it, you were very lucky indeed.
7 | HSL
One of the dishes that put Briar Handly’s brace of chef-driven businesses on the map, and still on the menu today, General Tso’s cauliflower; a funky brassica re-imagining of a Chinese-American classic.
6 | Feldman’s Deli
A staple of our yearly list in some capacity every year and for good reason. Janet and Michael Feldman’s East coast styled deli is legit. How legit you ask? Well, the Jersey expats import many of their menu staples from NY direct. Again, if you think SLC doesn’t have any truly great food, you’re a simpleton.
5 | Blue Marlin
When I wrote about Blue Marlin at the start of the year I waxed lyrical. In a town awash with sushi, there’s a surprising lack of high end cooked Japanese food. I thought I’d found my nirvana when I stopped by at the start of 2020 to check out what Jerry Pachecho (nee Pallet, Bambara) and Jake Wardle (Tsunami) were cooking up. Sadly the concept didn’t last long at all.
4 | Egg burger
Spending as much time behind closed doors as I did in 2020, I really got to work on perfecting my ‘oh look at that dribble’ photography skills (here’s another). This is probably the best example of a man with far too many eggs, and time, on his hands.
3 | Tuk Tuks
I’ll say it, I think Tuk Tuks have the best Thai food in town. The plates are unabashedly vibrant, and so far, I’ve found none that run for the safety of gobs of sugar. The above is a mix of their stupendously vigorous larb offset by some greasily good pork egg rolls.
2 | Carson Kitchen
This Las Vegas import caused much swooning and sighing when they finally landed in SLC in the second half of the year. CKSLC was on my list of ‘ones to watch’ in the 2019 State Of The Plate – and now I can smugly say – I told you so. Pictured is their coffee rubbed steak with arguably the best Mac n cheese in the state.
1 | Pastrami burger
In a year that saw us all return to our own kitchens, finally remembering what lives in that bottom draw, this home made creation seems like a fitting pinnacle to the list. This particular beauty was something I cooked up. The ingredients are simple and largely off the shelf stuff from most regular grocery stores:
- A sturdy Franz Bakery Kaiser bun
- A store bought burger patty (hey you could go fancier with your own grind)
- A runny egg (I’m particularly fond of the Vital Farms brand right now)
- Slowly pan caramelized onions
- Home made burger sauce (mayo, ketchup, pickle)
- And the piece de resistance – pan fried pastrami draped on with no care for calorie. The pastrami here is from Caputo’s Market and the best I’ve found locally.
Honorable mentions also goto Bjorns Brew and this post, for their generosity in the face of covid; and also this Sushi story that helped me scoop up an award from the SPJ (society of professional journalists). Both would feature in the top ten list above, but aren’t technically dishes per se.
Gone but not forgotten
Time to remember those who fell by the wayside, and won’t be ushering in 2021 with us.
Pallet – Fine dining has taken a drubbing for years, but Covus was and still is, an opponent too strong for a sector of the industry up against the ropes. Pallet threw in the towel quite recently, and will be greatly missed by many.
Moochie’s Lehi – Other locations remain open, but the Southerly branch of the previously expanding meatball empire contracted by one this year.
Mazza – Likewise Ali Sabbeh’s trio of Lebanese restaurants shrank to just the single original location in the 15th and 15th neighborhood. Both the Sandy and 9th and 9th locations shuttered in 2020.
Tamales Tita – The popular farmers market tamales option closed in November. With in person gatherings strained at best, and non functional at worst, the business was forced to call it quits.
Leslie’s Family Tree – After being in business for more than three decades, the Santaquin family restaurant couldn’t best the coronavirus in 2020.
Punch Bowl Social – Easily one of my favorite businesses to open in the last decade; I don’t care that it was a chain, it was just fun. The ‘experiential’ concept (and funding from parent corp Cracker Barrel) evaporated overnight in the face of C19. The larger business filed Chapter 11 in recent weeks, and the very notion the business was built on now seems as anachronistically feasible as smoking on an airplane.
Dunkin Donuts – More big guys taking big hits – the whole DD footprint simply upped and moved sticks from Utah in 2020.
Martine / Red Butte Cafe – The pub restaurant group saw two of their familiar faces close for good; the downtown fine dining Martine, and the East bench casual cafe. They are survived by Murray’s Stella and Trolley Square’s venerable Desert Edge Pub.
Tortilla Union – The Farmington based Mexican eatery, announced their closure on Facebook in June citing the pandemic. The spot has since been taken over by Nino Viejo, another Mexican concept with chef Brandon Price (Oakwood Fire Kitchen) at the tiller.
Creek Tea – The tea shop – part of the same family of businesses as Seabird and La Barba, confirmed in April that the doors would be closed for good.
Elevo – Owner and chef Jen Gilroy sought to bring back some of Meditrina’s fan favorites in this more casual setting in Sugar House. Sadly the revival didn’t last long and the restaurant closed, in its place right now, Tappo. You can still enjoy Gilroy’s cuisine over at Daybreak’s Porch.
Howdy’s – Three years into their journey, the popular ice cream store closed their doors in May.
Naborhood Bakery – Over at West Jordan’s Gardner Village this bakery is now defunct.
Cannella’s – One of SLC’s most well known restaurants was finally forced to shut up shop after an impressive 42 year run. The Italian restaurant is survived by the sister business Fratelli over in Sandy, which recently moved into fancy new digs.
Maccools – Once a three location mini-empire, the Irish themed restaurant saw a lot of changes over the years. I have many a fond memory of the Foothill location and their lamb sandwich paired with a decent enough Guinness.
Alamexo – The downtown location of Alamexo followed on from the previous years closure of Alamexo Cantina. The departure of Matt Lake’s cuisine from the streets of SLC is a huge loss. Utahns have long struggled to break out of the mental prison that suggests Mexican food should be measured by the weight and heft of the plate, not the finesse, tradition or skill.
Koko Kitchen – Fire wreaked havoc at this humble Japanese spot. A return was promised, and still might happen, but I haven’t heard word yet on the possible return.
Cafe Anh Hong – Rent pressures forced this Cantonese-classic to close. There’s not a day I don’t pray to any deity that will listen for CAH’s return.
Sampan – Another restaurant closure after facing rental issues. The two decade casual Chinese eatery in the lower Sugar Hood is now but a memory. Viet Pham’s Pretty Bird concept is currently making the space over, for their second location.
Trestle Tavern – Swallowed up by its own sibling Finca. Trestle Tavern’s promise that Eastern European cuisine was the next big thing, never really came off. The concept was nerfed, with the Spanish charms of Finca making the location its third (and hopefully forever) home.
2021 pontifications and prognostications
So what’s coming our way in 2021? Here’s my yearly guess about what the future holds – not that I have a clue mind you – I predicted a year of great events for 2020, and look how that turned out.
Closures to continue
I hate to state the obvious, but that list you just read above, it’s going to get a lot longer in the coming months. It only takes a glance of social media to find a business imploring their clients to support them (The Olympian, Himalayan Kitchen, Joe’s Cafe, Potstickers Plus 1 to name just a few I’ve seen myself).
I’ve received more than a few rumors and rumblings about who’s going to close next. Out of respect to business owners, I won’t say who, or share rumors – only confirmed fact. Lets get ready though, we surely have 3-6 more months at least of being at DEFCON 1.
The future is here to stay
This piece was uncomfortable for some in the industry, but I still firmly believe what I wrote. Recent data by Zenreach also backs up what I knew personally and anecdotally – people are still spending money on food – just not in the same manner of years gone by. Those businesses that have supported an increased demand for flexibility, safety, convenience and comfort will be richly rewarded for some time to come.
Remember Pachecho from above (Blue Marlin) – he’s currently at work perfecting NC style BBQ – which even in beta-mode is selling out after every run. Beltex Meats are setting record sales figures. Scott Evans of Pago recently launched the Hive Eats delivery service. Expect many more creative attempts at reworking norms.
Lets all dream for one second. Imagine if you will, a 2021 of smooth and universal vaccine roll out, and no virus escapology act. I know, bear with me. If 2021 does unfold to be the good sibling of 2020s evil twin – the rebound in the hospitality sector will be undoubtedly huge.
It’s hard to imagine going back to thronging crowds and food festivals, packed bars and hugs – but who could imagine the year we all just collectively endured? Those businesses that do manage to hold on just a little longer will more than likely be rewarded with a surge of business from pent up demand.
The chains, they’re a comin’
With the closure of so many spaces, restaurants and otherwise, a lot of prime real estate will be sat empty as the months roll on. Multi-unit brands like Raising Cains, Super Chix, Crack Shack and Gyro Shack have already pencilled in Utah for expansion. Expect more to follow, not least established brands to seize on the newly freed up space. This is all the talk in the trade mags for fast casual brands…
Ones to watch
Lastly, who and what to watch in 2021?
- Nohm. These guys have been quietly getting on with their work to little fanfare. The elegant and refined Japanese plates look absolutely stunning. I hope they hold on and iterate.
- The Ivy / Varley – A bar/restaurant duo taking up the space that Caffe Molise/BTG moved on from. The bar side of things is already slinging drinks, the food side should be here soon as well. The plates being demoed on their social media certainly looks intriguing.
- Bricks Corner – This new pizza joint has already caused multiple folks to email me. Here’s one such quote, “A new Detroit style pizza place has opened up near my place and I’ve been able to eat there twice now. It is the real deal. Pillowy dough with a crispy crust and sides with diverse toppings and sauces. Small details like a layer of parmesan that gets tucked between the pan and crust almost go unnoticed. I would say this place easily has the best pizza in SLC.”
- Lola – Hopefully this import from Orem will take up the high end Mexican mantle so sorely left bare by the loss of Alamexo. Opening in the 9th and 9th.
- Pretty Bird – The brand is famously inscrutable when it comes to hard data or info. All we know is that PB Mk2 is coming to Sugar House and with a new as yet unnamed dish. When it opens, the downtown location will be a walkup window style operation only.
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 a critical obsession with rice, alliteration and the use of too many big words I don’t understand. What they’re saying about me: “Not inaccurate”, “I thought he was older”, “I don’t share his feelings”.
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