Who knew that a pandemic would be so good for the local food scene? Well, for consumers, that is. Obviously, it has been terrible for the restaurant owners who are still struggling to eke out a profit, and servers who survive on tips. Sadly, there have been some beloved restaurants swallowed whole in the past year — the closing of Canella’s was like losing a cousin. However, entrepreneurs are taking advantage of empty storefronts to capitalize on this moment.
Along 100 South, a trio of lounges have flung their doors open, none more vibrantly than Why KiKi. Randy Oveson’s space is wildly creative and fun. The cobbled lounge is a maze of different experiences, with at least three bars, private rooms, basement speakeasy and dance floor, a stage (that screams for a drag performance), and a backyard in urban Utah that feels like you’re in sunny San Diego. I was not a fan of the signature coconut hotdog, but everyone else enjoyed it. I was there for the amazing tiki creations, which did not disappoint. Fishbowl cocktails with a base of Pop Rocks and floating shark gummies are a good cure for the two stuffy and pretentious neighbors.
Varley and The Ivy opened a month ago, and two trips to the latter were rough. Both times service issues sunk me into so much anxiety our crew left early. The second time we did not even get a chance to order anything after watching a bartender fumble around while a dozen beautiful servers meandered. Too bad, they have done a beautiful job on the interior space, once belonging to Caffé Molise and BTG.
Speaking of, those two Utah classics that relocated to The Bay building — Caffé Molise and BTG Wine Bar — are killing it! Fred Moesinger and his partners pumped some big coin into the building, and it is gorgeous. I was worried the location would hinder the success, but a recent visit proved me wrong. The food and service are delicious and polished, and the crowd is lively and cosmopolitan. I recently took eight folks, and dinner was flawless, especially my ravioli stuffed with garlic and mushroom, covered in a bright, fresh pesto. We sat upstairs, where the massive dance floor was for Club Splash. Gone are the water walls and men gyrating (unfortunately). However, the black and white tile, exposed brick, and live jazz band were a welcome and sophisticated update.
Serving Detroit-style pizza, Brick’s Corner on 700 East is set for meteoric success. The owners took an old gas station and transformed it into a gem of a neighborhood pizza place. The beautiful bar is sexy enough for a date, while the dining room is welcoming for families. Detroit style isn’t that wimpy, fold-over pizza. The dough is thick, and it crisps up in a rectangular pan, while the toppings are usually just red sauce and mozzarella. Chef Josh has several offerings to “upgrade” from the traditional. This is full-mouth, chewy pizza. As good as the pizza is, my favorite thing on the menu is the Sasso tots — cracked tots with braised, fork-tender beef shoulder, caramelized onions, fire-roasted peppers, melted mozzarella served with house giardiniera and Calabrian chili aioli. One note, each person ordered a pizza, which was great for the first time, but one pizza with the tots is plenty for two, maybe even three people.
Mortar and Pestle, hidden on Edison behind Curry Up Now, is the quaintest and cutest of lounges. I’m already regretting typing this, as the place is a little treasure box that can only fit around 15 people, and I want it all to myself. It feels like French Polynesia with a bit of glamor and a lot of grace. The friendly, affable, and handsome bartender told us a famous mixologist from Chicago had invented the cocktails. When he delivered the Inflight Smoker with tequila, mezcal, grapefruit-lime juice, bitter orange liqueur, and Jamaican bitters, I knew this was special. He lit a small sliver of cedar and cloth pinned it to the side of the glass, to enhance the smoky qualities of the tequila and mezcal. It was intoxicating in every way. I could not believe it was only $10. Other bars would slap a $15 sticker price and deliver it with half the love.
On social media, I’ve been trying to shill for Chettinad House, where Lamb’s Grill used to be. Just to smell it from Main Street is to fall in love. Their lunch specials at around $12.00 are two, maybe three meals, and have more flavor, bite-for-bite than restaurants charging three times that.
I was worried when Rio Grande Cafe closed after the earthquake, that it would be the end of the iconic restaurant in the troubled neighborhood. Then, I wondered how successful it would be when they moved into the old Market Street location on 1300 East. Pretty great, I can report. The historic firehouse with indoor/outdoor space is probably Salt Lake’s best replacement for the old Rio Grande train station. The food is the same — yummy, cheesy Mexican food, always served with generous amounts of fresh salsa. Don’t forget a mango margarita, and you’ll feel like the last year is a distant memory.