When a talented and discriminating chef recommends a restaurant to me, I listen. So I was a bit bowled over when one of my favorite local chefs recently steered me to Mimi’s Caf. Mimi’s Caf? I’d driven past the restaurant on State Street dozens of times, but had no more desire to dine there than to feast on plutonium, or to eat at Chili’s, Applebee’s or TGI Fridays (which is pretty much the same thing). Still, I try not to merely dismiss all franchise restaurants out of hand—Mimi’s is part of the Bob Evans empire—which I guess makes me a little less PC than most independent weekly restaurant critics. Before I knew it, I was lunching with Mimi.
It seems that it’s not good enough these days simply to open a restaurant with the intention of making money. You also need a good story, especially if you’re a franchise restaurant like Mimi’s Caf. The Mimi’s story essentially goes like this: Arthur J. Simms, who passed away in 2000, was a World War II Air Force pilot flying spy missions out of London into occupied France. Near the end of the war, Simms found himself with Allied troops engaged in liberating a town near Versailles. In a show of gratitude, the town’s locals celebrated the Allied troops on the night they were liberated with what little they had: Champagne and artichoke hearts. And over that awful sounding food-wine combination, Arthur J. Simms fell in love with a French gal named Mimi. Alas, the war and an ocean soon separated Mimi and Arthur, but when the Simms family decided to open a restaurant in Anaheim, Calif., in 1978—Arthur’s son Tom is current CEO—they decided to call it Mimi’s. The faux New Orleans/European dcor at Mimi’s Caf is said to be tribute to, and inspired by, Mimi. Another case of commerce trumping romance? Maybe.
The look of Mimi’s Caf is New Orleans’ French Quarter meets Little Italy at Epcot Center. There are lots of framed posters and photographs of paunchy French chefs on the dark wood walls, European-style caf chairs in concert with big blue-and-red leather banquets, classic jazz playing in the background, black bistro-style chalkboards hanging here and there, and lots of cute cottage artifacts and bric-a-brac which make up corporate decorator Stephanie Jacobi’s vision of what a European coffeehouse cum French Quarter caf would look like. For franchise dcor, it’s not too offensive; think McGrath’s with a beret and a toque or two.
My first meal at Mimi’s made me so happy I thought I’d wet myself. The place was mobbed for a weekday lunch, and so I took a solo seat at the counter/bar. Within minutes a very friendly (I mean, as in genuinely friendly) server named Kristy had placed a glass of Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay in front of me—along with what might have been one of the top five sandwiches I’ve ever eaten.
Now I’m a sucker for a grilled ham and cheese, and Mimi’s version certainly did not disappoint. It’s a towering sandwich made with high-quality ham and cheddar, cut into thirds, and garnished with ripe red tomatoes, lettuce and Thousand Island dressing on positively scrumptious garlic sourdough bread. You know how the best parts of a grilled cheese sandwich are those burnt cheese bits that ooze out over the edge? Well, the entire face and base of Mimi’s ham-and-cheddar sandwich ($7.49) is like that. The sourdough bread is crusted on top and bottom with melted crisp cheese. The only thing that could possibly improve this sandwich was a really good batch of french fries, which just happened to come alongside. The skin-on french fries at Mimi’s Caf are probably the best I’ve had in Salt Lake City since Au Bon Appetit closed down.
OK, so Mimi’s serves a good sandwich. What about breakfast? On a recent Saturday Mimi’s was mobbed again, this time with Race for the Cure participants. The wait for a table was long, but worth it if just for the shamefully decadent Blue Crab Benedict ($8.29). Don’t order this baby unless you’re really famished, have someone to share it with, are hung over or all three. In case of the latter, order a Mimosa to help wash it down. The Blue Crab Benedict at Mimi’s Caf is a big breakfast: Two perfectly poached eggs with Hollandaise sauce atop two grilled English muffin halves, with two crispy crab cakes where ham or Canadian bacon would usually be. And if that’s not enough it comes, as do all the house specialty breakfasts at Mimi’s, with fresh-squeezed O.J. and a deliciously seasoned hash of fried red potatoes. If that sounds like too much food for breakfast … well, it is. But those luscious blue crab cakes are also available as an appetizer (drizzled with a citrus remoulade) or as a dinner entre (served with french fries and coleslaw).
Mimi’s thick but flaky crusted chicken potpie. Tender pot roast with mashed potatoes and rich brown gravy. Cajun blackened salmon filet. New Orleans bread pudding. I’ve yet to dine at Mimi’s without being totally satisfied. But for me what really separates Mimi’s from most comers is a superbly trained service staff. I’m beginning to think these folks are either Moonies or there’s Prozac in the punch, because I’ve yet to visit Mimi’s when every server, every busser, every hostess and every manager wasn’t smiling and truly seemed happy to be there. But not in that phony-baloney “Hi, my name is Tim and I’ll be your cyber server tonight” sort of way. Although Mimi’s is very much a family restaurant, these folks don’t scowl when you order wine. They bring an ice-cold fork to accompany your Caesar salad. They are quick, professional and—I must repeat— friendly. Maybe that’s why now, like the late Arthur J. Simms, I’m mad about Mimi. MIMI’S CAF 874 W. Antelope Dr.Layton 728-9220 5223 S. StateMurray 261-0266 10470 S. StateSandy 572-5451 304 E. University Pkwy.Orem 765-1500Breakfast, Lunch, & Dinner daily