The best restaurants never rest on their bay leaves. They don’t stay the same; they get better. Salt Lake magazine’s list of Dining Award winners this year includes many familiar names, but the menus have changed, the service has improved, the décor is updated. In short, they’re better than ever. Until next year. (Click here for a quicker list of the Dining Awards winners, and here for the 2014 Dining Awards Readers' Choice winners.)
Best Restaurant: Salt Lake City
878 S. 900 East, SLC, 801-532-0777
Scott Evans’ Pago has been great from its get-go, back in 2009. But his artisanal-based, farm-to-table ethos and high standards inadvertently made the restaurant a quasi training ground for high-profile–higher, literally–resort restaurants. Phelix Gardner’s steadiness in the executive chef position for the past few years finally gave Pago the continuity that allows it to soar to the top and stay there. When it opened, Pago was cutting-edge; now it’s on its way to becoming a classic, with a menu that features tried-and-trues, like the nationally famous Pago Burger with pickled onions, to the unexpectedly edgy, including a carrot tasting which features the common vegetable five ways–raw, a confit, pickle, chips and a luxurious carrot mascarpone.
Best Restaurant: Park City
2300 Deer Valley Dr. East, Park City, 435-940-5760
J&G Grill at the St. Regis Deer Valley has always been a top-tier restaurant–it just hadn’t seemed like part of the Utah scene. It’s named after a chef who’s rarely in the kitchen and, at first, it catered more to visitors than residents. But the restaurant’s chef de cuisine, Shane Baird, makes a point of exploring Utah foods and embracing locals. Besides the often-Asian-tinged constructs that come out of the kitchen–sautéed snapper with spaghetti squash in soy-yuzu broth–diners can choose from a simple list of deluxe proteins like Shetland salmon, Paisley Farms pork or Clark’s Farm lamb and luxurious sides. Despite its star-struck name and glam digs, J&G has become a Utahn. One of the best Utahns.
Best Restaurant: Northern Utah
Hearth on 25th
195 Historic 25th Street, 2nd Floor (#6), Ogden, 801-399-0088
This quirky upstairs restaurant which has been introducing Ogdenites to fine flavors for years has reinvented itself as Hearth. The centerpiece is a wood-fired oven, and lots of the menu is inspired by that–the pizzas, the flatbreads and the hearth breads. The menu also features several elk dishes, including medallions, raspberry red, the flavor deepened by a wild mushroom risotto. And locally grown yak. Even if you don’t dessert, try the “chocolate Italian souffle.” It was not, as we had feared, just another molten chocolate cake, though it wasn’t really a souffle, either. It came in a ramekin and whatever you called it, it was the essence of barely sweetened dark warm chocolate.
Best Restaurant: Central Utah
Black Sheep Cafe
19 N. University Ave., Provo, 801-607-2485
How cool for a restaurant to illuminate one of Utah’s native foodways. Black Sheep chef Mark Daniel Mason brings a sense of haute cuisine to the heritage flavors of Navajo, Pueblo and Hopi cooking. The result is hearty, humble food with an earthy elegance unique among local restaurants: Indian “three sisters”–beans, corn and squash-–meet Italian bruschetta. The classic wedge gets some soul from cotija cheese and chipotle. Green chili stew and posole are given serious kitchen consideration, balanced but hearty, rich but not greasy. Even fry bread becomes a star made with Blue Bird flour.
Pago, J&G Grill, Hearth on 25th, Black Sheep Cafe
Del Mar al Lago
310 Bugatti Dr., SLC, 801-467-2890
Del Mar al Lago was everyone’s favorite secret until this year. Now it’s just everyone’s favorite. The modest restaurant has been given a boost in style and scope, making dining here a comfortably exotic experience. Our ethnic food-scape is pretty sparse so Peruvian is a fairly novel cuisine to most Utahns, but the savory and citrusy variations of cebicha, or ceviche—not to mention the pisco sours—have won the hearts and minds of Utah diners, even to the point of embracing skewered beef heart. Don’t be afraid, timid diners: Plenty of rice and pasta dishes are on the menu, along with fried foods and even a Peruvian version of paella.
Best Wine List
BTG Wine Bar
63 W. 100 South, SLC, 801-359-2814
BTG stands for “By the Glass” and while some may consider this restaurant a trifle young to win a big award, the tenacity with which Fred Moessinger (owner of Caffe Molise next door) pursued the audacious-in-Utah idea of a true wine bar deserves kudos. There are craft cocktails and specialty beer, and you can order food from Caffe Molise, but the pieces des resistances are the more than 50 wines by the glass. You can order a tasting portion or a full glass, allowing you to sample vintages you might not be inclined to buy by the bottle.
Community Service Award
Steven Rosenberg, Liberty Heights Fresh
1290 S. 1100 East, SLC, 801-583-7374
Steve Rosenberg does our city a great service just by being in business. He opened Liberty Heights Fresh 21 years ago, before there was such a thing as a Certified Cheese Expert, before local food became a buzzword. In other words, Rosenberg gambled on Salt Lakers’ sense of taste. Now, besides the stellar cheese selection and shelf goods, Liberty Heights caters, makes terrific sandwiches and offers its own CSA. Plus Rosenberg is at pretty much every food consciousness-raising event, from Feast of Five Senses to the Downtown Farmers Market. The list of local businesses he supports goes on and on.
Best New Restaurant
Best Mexican Restaurant
268 S. State Street, SLC, 801-779-4747
Matthew Lake’s four-day transformation of Zy into Alamexo was one of the neatest tricks performed this year and one of the smartest moves. Don’t be dubious about a gringo in a Mexican kitchen: Lake’s a thorough pro and his previous experience running Besito and Rosa Mexicana in New York and working with Southwest culinary legend Mark Miller has given him a golden palate and a passion for South of the Border flavors that shows on the plate at Alamexo. His salsas–the backbone of Mexican cuisine–are ever-changing and dependably addictive, as good salsa should be. Lake pulls flavors from many regions of Mexico; classics like enchiladas Suizas–roast chicken seasoned with epazote, baked in tomatillo cream and sprinkled with cilantro–and flautas are as carefully rendered as more ambitious creations like slow cooked salmon with crispy bananas, pineapple pico de gallo and Oaxacan mole manchamanteles. If you believe all Mexican food should cost less than $10 a plate, please note: twenty bucks is not too much to pay for entrees like this.
Del Mar al Lago, BTG Wine Bar, Steven Rosenberg of Liberty Heights Fresh, Alamexo
J. Wong's Asian Bistro
163 W. 200 South, SLC, 801-350-0888
In Utah, Chinese food, like Mexican food and many other non-white culinary traditions, suffers from a perception that it is supposed to be cheap and unlovely. The Wong family’s insistence on elegance in the dining room and on the plate flies delightfully in the face of this expectation. With a grace, serenity and eagerness to serve that many more (and less!) expensive restaurants would do well to emulate, J. Wong’s staff makes a meal the relaxing, sustaining experience it should be. Plus, the potstickers are terrific. The Wong brothers’ frequent trips to Taiwan and Hong Kong mean the menu benefits from authentic flavors married to American proportions–like the chef’s special filet mignon with Thai chili, garlic and oyster sauce. A new sommelier means the wine and beer lists are receiving the same attention as the food. And bonus: The Wongs’ twin heritage of Thai and Chinese mean that the pad Thai here might be the best in town, even though the menu stresses Chinese dishes.
4751 S. Holladay Blvd., SLC, 801-272-9111
Confetti’s was a family-run Holladay institution for 16 years. Like most restaurants, it ran its course, but instead of closing, the Tadros family put their considerable talents together and reinvented the family business. Layla, a Mediterranean grill and mezze cafe, is based on the Tadros’ Lebanese/Egyptian heritage, and since it opened, the food at the redecorated, re-imagined restaurant has gotten better and better. Start with the merguez-style sausages. Because they’re ridiculously good and because they represent the care the Tadros family is putting into the food at Layla. The recipe and spices come from an old family recipe and the lamb comes from Morgan Valley. Layla features a variety of Middle Eastern dishes–you could call this “Mediterranean Rim” cuisine–hummus, moussaka, kabobs, shawarma. Layla is once again the heart of Holladay.
Saffron Valley East India Cafe
26 E. Street, SLC, 801-203-3325
Lavanya Mahate’s Saffron Valley edges in front because of its breadth. Sometimes it can be a mistake for one kitchen to attempt too much, and Saffron Valley touches on a whole subcontinent of cuisine, from Indian street food to southern dhosas to Chino-Indian dishes. The remarkable thing: It’s all good. Add to that Mahate’s sense of occasion, her emphasis on food as celebration—restaurant events this year included a Diwali dinner, a kebab festival, the annual Indian street food festival—and you have a star. Even the lunch buffet is special, never featuring the same lineup twice. Explore the map of food here, but if you want to stick with the familiar, this may be the best tandoor in town.
67 W. 100 South, SLC, 801-595-8888
Naked Fish has already raised the bar beyond other Japanese restaurants for kushiyaki, sushi and kobe; investing in new equipment and more chefs and painstakingly procuring absolutely pristine products. Proving the best can always get better, owner Johnny Kwon upped the standards again, introducing great ramen at lunch, inviting star chef Viet Pham to play in the Naked Kitchen and bringing in Certified Sommelier Christian Frech as well as a sake sommelier. The result is innovation within tradition, one of the hardest restaurant tricks to pull off. For example, the jidori chicken breast with roasted potatoes and a vanilla-honey teriyaki sounds like it belongs on a PF Chang menu, but its subtle balance is thoroughly Japanese and suited for the American appetite.
J. Wong's Asian Bistro, Layla, Saffron Valley East India Cafe, Naked Fish
Fresco Italian Cafe
1513 S. 15th East, SLC, 801-486-1300
Even great restaurants wax and wane according to the energy and imagination of the chef and the interest and teamwork of the staff. Once again, Fresco is riding high. In the kitchen, Logan Crews is layering flavors, temperatures and textures, and turning out food infused with Italian soul. For example: a simple soup featuring the veg of the year comes to the table as a white bowl centered with a cauliflower floret and a scoop of cool goat cheese. Your server pours the creamy white lentil and cauliflower soup around the vegetable. The result is a white-on-white interplay of crunchy vegetable, rich broth and cool cheese, surprisingly complex and perfectly orchestrated.
Best Comfort Food
Silver Star Cafe
1825 Three Kings Dr., Park City, 435-655-3456
Jeff and Lisa Ward’s mountain cafe is so high you may need a blanket if you’re dining outside in the summertime. Not to worry–they’ll bring you one. These hands-on owners go to extra lengths to make sure Silver Star is welcoming and cozy and as a result, the cafe is one of the most popular spots in Park City, especially when there’s live music on the patio. Meanwhile, David Bible follows through in the kitchen with hearty pork osso buco, braised shortribs and wood-fired pizza. One of the single best dishes ever was the speck and fig pizza with Snowy Mountain Strawberry Peak cheese, a special on the menu this summer.
779 E. 300 South, SLC, 801-433-3380
Urban and mellow aren’t terms that usually marry happily, but Caffe Niche manages to make their bistro both. This corner cafe shines especially at breakfast, when the emphasis is on what we all know we like for breakfast, because morning is no time for experiments. So we’re not talking special-occasion strata concoctions, or ginormous brunch extravaganzas–we’re talking about eggs and bacon, toast and muffins. But chef-owner Ethan Lappe gets his eggs from Tifie Ranch, the English muffins are housemade and the salmon with the bagel is house-smoked. Everyday excellence is the rule and that’s how we should all start the day.
2005 E. 2700 South, SLC, 801-906-0369
Sandwiches are the basis of lunch, and delis are the sandwich source. Foodies have long bewailed the absence of a proper Jewish deli in SLC, but the reason there hasn’t been one is obvious: As of 2008, only about .5 percent of Utah’s population was Jewish. So Feldman’s is good news. Mike and Janet Feldman know their knish–and their matzoh ball soup. The only disappointment is the midday opening time. So, no morning bagels. That’s why it’s getting the Best Lunch award.
Fresco Italian Cafe, Silver Star Cafe, Caffe Niche, Feldman's Deli
155 S. Main St., SLC, 801-355-3942
Once again, we have a memory of a mother to thank for this bakery. In this case, Charlie Coomb’s great-grandmother, Eva, is immortalized “with love and butter.” But let’s be clear: Baking bread and making pastry are two distinctly different enterprises. Here in Utah, we’re not so picky as a rule, and the staff of life and the sweet stuff often come from the same hands. Not at Eva. The baker and the pastry chef rule their domains, one with an appropriately heavier hand than the other. Breads here, made with local flour, are crusty without, moist within and don’t last long, as befits good bread. Be prepared for French toast. Pastries, on the other hand, are light and flaky, ephemeral. Time your stop for lunchtime, so you can have a bowl of onion soup before taking your loaves and tarts.
Best Neighborhood Restaurant
Avenues Bistro on Third
564 E. Third Avenue, SLC, 801-831-5409
A series of peripatetic chefs, a slightly bohemian staff and management, a name no one can get right and on-going zoning struggles over a patio and bar haven’t dimmed neighborhood enthusiasm for this tiny and undeniably charming cafe. Owner Kathie Chadbourne revels in the local, and approaches her businesses in an unorthodox fashion, but part of the charm at Avenues Bistro is its eccentricity. For example, the controversial postage-stamp speakeasy and the original tiles under the bar and the menu, which has changed so often since the bistro’s opening that it’s hard to go back for favorites. Never mind, you’ll find a new one.
Salt Lake magazine's Dining Awards Hall of Fame
Six years ago, we instituted the Salt Lake magazine Dining Hall of Fame to honor restaurants that not only achieved excellence but maintained it. These are places that set—and then re-set—the bar for Utah cuisine. They serve as an example of the level of quality other places should strive for. This year, we asked several Hall of Fame restaurants to serve as the panel of judges for the Dining Awards. Thanks to Red Iguana, Squatters Pub Brewery, Log Haven and Aristo’s.
300 W. Broadway, Salt Lake City, 801-328-3463
18 W. Market St., Salt Lake City, 801-519-9595
224 S.1300 East, Salt Lake City, 801-581-0888
Photos by Adam Finkle