Thanks to the decimation of downtown—which ultimately has something to do with “Downtown Rising”—more and more restaurants are being shuttered, barely squeaking by or gasping their final breath? Very few downtown restaurants are thriving. But there are a handful of them, known collectively as Temple Square Dining, which seem demolition- and recession-proof. For example, walk into the bustling Nauvoo Café at lunchtime and you’re lucky to find a seat. On Valentine’s Day, Temple Square’s Roof Restaurant was sold out for every seating, beginning at 3 p.m. Apparently, those early Roof-goers wanted to get the romance party started early.
How do such restaurants flourish while others flounder? Well, it helps to have one of the richest religions on the planet as your banker.
I want Neil Wilkinson’s job. He is the affable director of marketing for Temple Square Hospitality Corporation, which includes The Roof and Garden restaurants, Nauvoo Café and The Lion House Pantry. I like Wilkinson a lot. He’s a genuinely nice fella, and one of the hardest-working guys I know in the restaurant and hospitality biz. But, let’s face it—he’s also working for a nonprofit.
The irony does not escape me: Temple Square restaurants pretty much operate on the same model as the Vegas casinos of yesteryear.
The $1.99 steak & eggs breakfast and 39-cent shrimp cocktails were designed to get people into casinos and keep them there.
Today, of course, the world-class eateries of Las Vegas are profit centers unto themselves, but in the old days, they were subsidized by the casinos and not expected to turn a profit. The same goes for the restaurants at Temple Square. They are subsidized by the LDS Church. And while I doubt that any of the four Temple Square dining venues are losing any money, they aren’t mandated to be profitable, either. In these troubled economic times that must make Wilkinson’s job a lot less stressful than, say, being marketing director for Planet Hollywood.
Location, location, location. It helps to have more than 5 million visitors per year walk past your doors. Most of them seem to be lunching at the Nauvoo Café whenever I go there. The joint is always jammed, and I can’t shake the feeling that I’m the only customer wishing for a wine list. But hey, the food is fast and cheap—and often quite tasty.
I suspect Brigham Young would be spinning in his grave, though, if he saw what they’re doing to the sandwiches at the Nauvoo Café. Dijonnaise? That has a distinctly French ring to it. And smoked chipotle barbecue sauce—whaaaaa? I wonder if they decaffeinate the Coke used for the Coca Cola-marinated pork loin ($6.49).
It’s tasty as hell, that’s for certain. Seriously, the Nauvoo Café sandwiches are terrific. Fresh, real oven-roasted turkey breast ($6.49), topped with a thick slice of cheese and toasted to perfection on housemade focaccia-style bread is awfully hard to beat. But the cold sandwiches are delicious too, particularly the white Albacore tuna salad sammy ($5.99).
Nauvoo Café is a cafeteria-style eatery, so there’s nobody to tip, which helps keep the tab low. I’ve never been in a cafeteria with such plush carpeting, though, not to mention chandeliers. Many come for the fresh-baked pot pies. Frankly, I’ll admit I’m not a pot-pie pro. I was raised on Swanson’s, so for me, a pot pie is simply a vehicle for getting that cholesterol-raising crust into my mouth. The flaky crust of Nauvoo’s turkey pot pie ($7.49) was reason enough to order it, although I found the filling sludgy—thick white spackle with very few veggies (peas & carrots) and not a whole lot of turkey, either. But as I said, it’s all about the crust, which was upper.
Nauvoo chili ($2.95 cup/$3.95 bowl) is non-traditional to say the least. The flavor was good, with a seriously spicy kick. But I couldn’t detect any beef in my chili, which had chunks of chicken or turkey and ham (ham in chili?), along with red beans, garbanzos and corn. It was more akin to a chiliflavored vegetable stew than classic chili con carne. Thrillingly, you can purchase Coca-Cola Classic, with all that wonderful caffeine, at the Nauvoo Café. Who knew? I don’t mean to stereotype, but Utahns do seem to love buffets and, especially, desserts.
Along with views that only your favorite deity could wish for, The Roof restaurant atop the Joseph Smith Memorial Building has the latter in spades. And just look at all the pretty construction! Pianos tinkle everywhere in the JSMB, including at The Roof. Think Liberace, not Art Tatum. But it provides a sugary soundscape to the bountiful Roof buffet ($36 per person), which includes—get this—25 different desserts! An excellent server named Ryan Hinman, those delectable desserts and the incredible views were The Roof’s high points. Overcooked prime rib, cod, pork tenderloin and Cajun chicken were not. My advice is stick to the cold buffet, which features green salads, chilled shrimp, poached salmon, imported and domestic cheeses and pasta salad. A zippy, Asianspiced mélange of green beans, carrots, cranberries and beef was smokin’. However, the culinary smash of the evening was, not surprisingly, mashed potatoes.
The opportunity to dine in Brigham Young’s personal residence—where he must’ve supped with his 55 wives (but who’s counting?)—is the main attraction at Temple Square’s Lion House Pantry. And the homebaked rolls and house-brewed Brigham’s Favorite Pioneer Sarsaparilla are said to hold great appeal. But alas, the place seemed just a little too damned holy for me.
NAUVOO CAFÉ 15 E. South Temple, 801-539-3346
THE ROOF 15 E. South Temple, 10th floor, 801-539-1911
THE LION HOUSE PANTRY 63 E. South Temple, 801-539-3257 DiningAtTempleSquare.com