Downtown Provo’s restaurants are diverse, surprising and as I argued in May, creating a kind of culinary renaissance in the city. But while the number of restaurants is remarkable, what really gives Provo an edge over other places — some of which are larger or more conventionally cosmopolitan — is innovation. In other words, it’s the combination of breath and creativity that is igniting a food scene right before our eyes.
This phenomenon was made strikingly clear to me last week at Station 22’s Supper Club. The club was held Aug. 30 and was advertised as a “Carolina-style Pig Pickin'” with “a whole roast hog served up with hushpuppies, beans, sweet tea, and more.”
I’m not much of a pork guy — or a big meat-eater generally — so I was initially a tiny bit skeptical. What I ended up experiencing, however, not only laid my fears to rest but even exceeded my preconceptions about what dining in downtown Provo could be.
The meal took place at a communal table. It was the kind of seating arrangement that’s often awkward for a minute or two, but then ends up fostering unexpected connections. In my case, I ended up talking more to the new friends who sat around me than the companions I showed up with. The ambiance was further enriched by Appalachian-style folk band Cotton Bones.
As advertised, the menu included roasted hog, hushpuppies and more. Frankly, I’ve had trouble figuring out how to describe the food because despite its obvious roots in traditional American cuisine I’ve never really had anything quite like it. It was delicious, and the combination of salads, the meat, the hushpuppies and other fare amounted to far more than the sum of the individual parts. The ultimate effect was rich without being over-heavy. The smoked lemonade was also particularly distinctive and unlike anything I’ve previously tasted.
But most importantly, the entire experience was obviously an exercise in innovation. Like successful art, the food was a creative interpretation of existing concepts. The setting and set up were orchestrated for hyper engagement. The environment — especially the music — was meant to interact with the food.
Most restaurants — including all chains I’ve ever experienced — never even approach this idea. Hopefully, they serve satisfactory food but either way they’re not thinking of eating as enlightening or humanizing. Station 22 clearly is, and that’s why Provo’s culinary scene is heating up; food is being recognized as a way to explore more than just our bellies.
Station 22 isn’t alone, of course. Communal, for example, holds both instructional and meet-your-farmer dinners that aim to enrich community members’ interaction with food. Black Sheep Cafe uses food as an expression and exploration of Native American culture. Last year, the Heirloom people hosted a giant fundraising dinner on a farm which turned out to be one of the best eating experiences I can remember.
Those are all examples of restaurateurs exploding traditional paradigms.
Ultimately, not every restaurant in downtown is trying to reinvent the eating experience. Many of them just serve really great food, and that’s important too. But taken together, these various culinary philosophies are building a renaissance and they’re building a scene.