Where were you 25 years ago, in 1980? The SNL cast that year included Bill Murray, Garrett Morris, Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner, Larraine Newman and Harry Shearer. A postage stamp cost 15 cents, and the year’s big radio hits included “Whip It,” “Funkytown,” and “You Shook Me All Night Long.” Post-it notes were introduced by 3M, John Lennon was murdered and Ronald Reagan was elected president. It would be the last time that I’d hold the naÃ¯ve belief that American presidents ought to be at least smarter than the average adolescent American male and presumably more competent. The U.S. boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow and beat the Russian hockey team in the Winter Games. We learned who shot J.R.
On Halloween in 1980, Market Street Grill, the creation of business partners John Williams, Tom Sieg and Tom Guinney, opened downtown on Market Street. I wasn’t in Utah 25 years ago, but I’m told that'like most landlocked American cities and towns'Salt Lake City was a seafood desert. Frozen cod and fried shrimp were the best one could hope for, unless you went out and fished for yourself. Market Street Grill changed that, contracting Western Airlines and later Delta to fly fresh seafood directly to Utah. At a time when most Utahns probably depended on Mrs. Paul for their seafood, the arrival of fresh coastal seafood must have been exhilarating.
It still is. As seafood restaurants go, Market Street Grill is without competition in Salt Lake City. With the exception of a few fast-food fish joints and sushi bars, I can’t even think of another dedicated seafood restaurant; over the past quarter century, Market Street has cornered the market. But I’d be interested to see the Market Street Grill menu from 1980. I’ll bet you wouldn’t find Oregon Petrale sole, white sea bass from California, fresh Atlantic and Copper River Sockeye salmon, New Zealand orange roughy or black and blue Ahi tuna from Hawaii. During a dinner at Market Street Grill last week, accompanied by a couple of friends who were probably in elementary school in 1980, that array of fresh fish accounted for just some of the restaurant’s daily specials. My friend’s sturgeon with a lovely, sweet citrus sauce the flavor of Grand Marnier was an absolute knockout.
Visit Market Street Grill on a Wednesday night and you might be lucky enough to be greeted by longtime manager'and all-around good guy'Fred Boutwell. If the stars align just right, you’ll be served by an employee who’s been around even longer than Fred: Mark Lacy, who’s been waiting tables at Market Street Grill since that Halloween night in 1980.
Last week, we weren’t quite so lucky. After being seated, our late-arriving server seemed to be preoccupied with a couple of women who’d been at the table next to us and kept muttering something to us about their strange conversation, like we cared. Meanwhile, I pleaded for a wine list, which I had to wrestle from his hands. Note to server: Most of your customers will be able to locate the wines-by-the-glass on the three-page list by simply opening the damned thing. They won’t actually need directions.
Nevertheless, dinner at Market Street Grill was very good, all in all. Sharing a dozen Kumamoto oysters ($18.99) from Humboldt Bay and a plate of crunchy, tender fried rock shrimp ($8.99) was a perfect way to kick off dinner in the 25-year-old restaurant. The Willamette Valley Elk Cove Pinot Gris ($36) we sipped with the oysters and shrimp was absolutely luscious and paired wonderfully with everything from tender steamed mussels ($9.99) and thick, creamy clam chowder with hints of thyme, to that amazing citrus-kissed sturgeon I mentioned. A not-so-expected Market Street treat is its Kick-Ass Chili ($9.99), which is the best restaurant chili I’ve had in Utah since Elvis Nixon’s Chili Palace in Sandy closed, made with cubes of tender sirloin. By the way, the 100 percent Angus beef steaks at Market Street Grill are also exceptional and cooked to perfection, particularly the 12-ounce center cut New York Sirloin ($31.99).
Having sampled a number of Market Street Grill dishes over the past couple of weeks, months and years, only one has really disappointed me. The seafood marinara ($18.99) with shrimp, clams, mussels and lobster tail tasted like it was buried in microwaved Prego and served with overcooked spaghetti to accompany the overcooked lobster tail. The experience confirmed my longtime belief that the best food served at Market Street Grill is also the simplest: ultra-fresh fish and seafood served with as little muss and fuss as possible. So I’ll always prefer a plate of freshly shucked oysters and Alaskan King crab legs or delicious, straightforward Alaskan halibut with tartar sauce over Market Street’s more complicated kitchen offerings'with the exception of the killer seafood gumbo, that is.
I know downtown restaurateurs who are envious of the gaggles of customers who line up outside Market Street Grill, awaiting a table. But Mssrs. Williams, Sieg and Guinney should be given their due for hitting upon a restaurant formula that works, and has been working now for 25 years. Considering the life-span of most restaurants, that’s remarkable. Or maybe not, because serving fresher-than-fresh fish in an inviting 1930’s style eatery with (mostly) good service seems to me like such an obvious path to restaurant success that I’m surprised it hasn’t been replicated in other Salt Lake City restaurants, except for Gastronomy Inc.’s own. Now that’s something fishy. Happy anniversary, baby.