Category Archives: restaurant

A Few Food Things

This week saw a few noteworthy pieces published about to Provo’s burgeoning food scene. My favorite is this City Weekly interview with the owners of Station 22. In that article Richard Gregory and Jason Talcott discuss their vision for the restaurant (and parent company) and provide a lot of other interesting details about one of Provo’s culinary gems.

Station 22 was recently featured in City Weekly and is helping put the Wasatch Front on the nation’s food map.

Relatedly, Zagat also published a list of “7 Up-and-Coming Food Cities Around the U.S.” Salt Lake City was the second city on the list. That’s good for the whole state, but it’s also good specifically for Provo which, according to Salt Lake Magazine, is the hippest place in Salt Lake City. Slug Magazine has also singled out Provo for it’s culinary wonders.

In other words, the region is becoming known for food and Provo is earning a reputation locally as a destination. That’s good for all of us who like to eat out, but as I’ve argued before, restaurants are an important part of a vital city. They’re also key for creating non-boring places and for enhancing quality of life.

It’s also worth mentioning that the more time I spend in Salt Lake the more I am in awe of Provo’s restaurants; up in SLC few things are within walking distance of each other, quality is often sacrificed for ambiance or “hipness” and I’m surprised less often. I haven’t eat at every buzz-worth restaurant in Salt Lake, of course, but that’s considerably harder to do there than in Provo.

All of which is to say that Provo’s restaurant scene is really quite a treasure.

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Rebuild the Gondola!

Here’s a wild, long-shot of an idea: Provo should bring back the gondola over Bridal Veil Falls.

According to Wikipedia, Bridal Veil Falls used to have an “aerial tramway” that was destroyed twice by avalanches. Apparently it was advertised as the “world’s steepest aerial tramway” until the second avalanche shut it down in 1996. Here are some historic photos, for those who never saw or can’t remember the gondola ride in action:

This dramatic shot shows Provo Canyon’s gondola nearly reaching its destination. According to BYU’s archive, it comes from the Daily Herald and was taken sometime between 1960 and 1980.

The date and source of this picture are the same as the one above. Note how happy these people are. That’s how we’d all feel all the time if this gondola was rebuilt.

The BYU archive states that this picture was taken sometime before 1970. Though hard to see, I think the gondola looks a bit different from those in the first two pictures, suggesting that it may be from before the first collapse.

Another Herald picture taken before 1980, this one shows the lower platform for the “sky ride.”

Another kind of cable car. This picture was taken before 1980.

I had the pleasure of riding this gondola as a child during one of my family’s many summer trips to Provo. Much like the people in the pictures above, it brought me great happiness.

But joy isn’t the only reason to bring the gondola back to Provo Canyon. In fact the Guardian recently reported that this sort of device can be a legitimate form of transportation. That was certainly the case in Provo, when it was the exclusive way to access the restaurant above Bridal Veil Falls. Presumably then, bringing the gondola back would open up the area above Bridal Veil Falls to new development — meaning perhaps more trails or a restaurant.

And speaking of the outdoors, I’ve written before that outdoor activity can be a significant driver of economic development. Bringing back the gondola would help Provo further capitalize on its incredible natural environment. It’s also worth noting that the population — meaning the potential customer base for the gondola — in Utah County has dramatically increased in the past 16 years. That increase is projected to continue as well. This is an idea for which the time may finally have arrived.

And in case you’re wondering what the gondola looks like today, I found this video on Youtube, which apparently was shot earlier this year:

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Filed under Development, environment, mountains, restaurant

Provo Restaurants Dominate Utah

SLUG’s coverage of Provo varies — it’s often of the “wow, something cool actually exists down there” variety — but this week writer Alex Springer gave credit where credit was due when he highlighted one of the area’s greatest assets: restaurants.

Covering Local First Utah’s Celebrate the Bounty event last weekend, Springer wrote that some of the best restaurants actually hail from downtown Provo:

Each restaurant in attendance served great food, but there were a few that presented dishes that will definitely bring me into their establishments for more—even though a lot of them are all the way down in Provo.

Of the five restaurant’s Springer goes on to profile, three are from Provo. Among other things Springer calls Communal’s Locals Only PB&J “the most exquisite dessert” he tried, describes Black Sheep’s meat as “awesome,” and says he loved “everything about” Station 22’s chicken and waffles.

Communal earned praise from SLUG magazine for it’s work at Local First Utah’s recent event.

Provo’s restaurants, and in particular these three, rightly deserve a pat on the back for their creativity.

But the event and subsequent article also show how a city earns a reputation for quality, and for coolness. In other words, this sort of thing builds the city’s mystique and, as Springer himself plans to do, should entice new people to visit and economically support Provo.

SLUG praised Station 22 for their chicken and waffles. I can confirm that the chicken and waffles are delicious.

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The Declaration of Independence

One of the most remarkable things about downtown Provo, perhaps the most remarkable, is how independent it has stayed. There are more restaurants per square mile than all but the most touristy of places, for example, but no chains.

The result is innovation, creativity and an unparalleled experience. Everyone has their favorite places in downtown and it’s a testament to the diversity of the area that there are so many differing opinions; it takes a lot of hard work and success to inspire wildly different but devoted fans.

Downtown Provo is filled with innovative and independent businesses. A new Facebook page has been created to help foster that environment.

Recently, a friend asked if I’d be interested in jumping on as an administrator for the Keep Downtown Independent Facebook page. And after a quick conversation, I realized it was something I definitely support. As I see it, the idea is to keep downtown Provo filled with creativity and innovation. It’s to keep local money in the local economy. It’s to continue building downtown and making a great place, or a greater place.

Every city should have a page like this, and many probably do. But if you care about building a great city that isn’t generic or like anywhere else in the world, go like the page. And while you’re at it, share your vision for the future of downtown Provo.

 

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Filed under buy local, community, Downtown, Provo, restaurant

A True Food Scene

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.”

Pork and a pig’s head cooked by Station 22. Photo courtesy of Jason Ross Williams.*

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.

This band played throughout the meal. Photo courtesy of Jason Ross Williams.*

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.

Smoked lemonade. Photo courtesy of Jason Ross Williams.*

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.

* Jason Ross Williams was kind enough to let me use his photos of the event at Station 22. He also photographed the first Supper Club and has many other cool images on his website.

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Filed under buy local, Food, restaurant

What to do With Wasted Street and Parking Space

I’ve written before about how we have streets that are too wide, as well as far too much parking. So what should we do with all the wasted pavement?

One solution would be to dig it up and turn it into buildings or parks. But that’s costly and requires massive demand.

A simpler solution is to simply use existing street and parking space for something else. For example, while in New York recently I saw an example of this idea in action:

Cafe and pedestrian space, along with The Andy Monument, near Union Square in New York City.

In the picture above, a curb is visible on the right side near the food vendors. Presumably, that’s where the street and the sidewalk formerly met.

Today, however, the “sidewalk” has been extended out 20 or so feet. Planters running along the left side of the picture create a physical (and psychological) barrier between the seating area and the traffic. It’s also worth mentioning that this street obviously has a lot of traffic on it, but people nevertheless are choosing to sit down. It just goes to show that a great space will attract users.

Compared to digging up streets and parking lots, this approach is easy and cheap. Applied to Provo, and especially downtown, it could be used to extend sidewalks and create more outdoor seating for restaurants and shops without any costly changes to the physical infrastructure. It could even be deployed temporarily as a test.

Manhattan is a place filled with traffic jams and, according to the conventional wisdom in the West, inadequate parking. But despite those conditions, the city has still chosen to use potential car space for nothing more than sitting and lingering. It’s no wonder, then, that Union Square is an exceptionally popular and pleasant place.

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Filed under parking, restaurant

Nellie’s Closure Illustrates Difficulty Posed by New Construction

Less than three months after it opened, Nellie’s Bakery and Diner has thrown in the towel. And whatever the restaurant did right or wrong, I’m sad that I’ll no longer be able to get great French toast and artisan bread — particularly peasant bread — in downtown Provo.

You can read the message posted on the restaurant’s doors in the image below.

Owner’s statement explaining the restaurant closure.

Based on that statement, it sounds like the restaurant may have anticipated some source of funding that didn’t materialize as expected. Nellie’s also was plagued by trouble from the get-go; opening dates were repeatedly pushed back by equipment delays, so that process may have unfortunately eaten up more funding that expected.

But what stands out to me most about this situation is how massive the overhead must have been at Nellie’s. Most obviously, the restaurant opened in the newest large structure in Provo, the Zion’s Bank Building. Maybe Nellie’s cut some sort of deal with the building owners, but otherwise that was probably the absolute most expensive place to operate a business. No wonder it lacked sufficient capital while other restaurants in older buildings have survived.

On top of that, the space was massive. I was consistently surprised at how busy Nellie’s often was and yet how, despite having more people than many other downtown restaurants, it felt emptier. It was the exact opposite strategy taken by smaller restaurants like Communal, Black Sheep Cafe, or Rice King, as well as larger restaurants with highly partitioned space like Los Hermanos or Gloria’s Little Italy.

The result was that Nellie’s was (probably) paying more for its space but getting less out of it. That’s a toxic recipe for a restaurant.

As the note mentions, Nellie’s also had no parent company to fall back on. That makes opening in a brand new building particularly difficult. Most restaurants that open in new strip malls and shopping centers, for example, are generic chains. Applebee’s, Chili’s, Olive Garden, etc., etc., etc. Even City Creek has more chain restaurants than originally anticipated for this same reason.

The reason for this phenomenon isn’t because bland restaurants like bland buildings, it’s because they’re the only ones that can afford the rents that come with new development. Ultimately, new real estate is just really expensive and only the richest tenants can afford to rent it.

Jane Jacobs used this fact to argue for historic preservation. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities she argues over and over again that old buildings with cheaper rent allow people with a lot of creativity but fewer funds to set up shop and thrive.

Communal, Black Sheep Cafe, Station 22 and just about every other restaurant in downtown Provo bear that point out. Gloria’s even started in a cheaper, smaller location and moved to a more expensive spot — but still one in an old structure — after its owners built up the business. Braza Express — one of the most underrated restaurants in Provo — also operates in the Zion’s Bank Building, but uses about half the space that Nellie’s had (and seems to be struggling, unfortunately).

I have no idea what contributed to Nellie’s rapid demise and maybe a cheaper space wouldn’t have made a difference in this particular case. I also think the owners should be commended for their efforts. Some of the food at Nellie’s was great, and by Saturday evening a fan had even wedged a thank you note in the door.

But the restaurant’s rise and fall illustrates why a city needs diverse architecture and infrastructure: without it, entrepreneurs — culinary or otherwise — simply have nowhere affordable to set up shop and innovate.

Nellie’s Diner opened in May and closed by July. They didn’t even have time to take down the “Now Open” sign.

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Filed under Development, Downtown, economics, Food, restaurant