I was a little worried as I drove up Emigration Canyon on a recent Monday evening, heading for the newly remodeled Ruth's Diner.
The question was, would it still be Ruth's? Would the spirit of its feisty original owner, a sort of cross between Ethel Merman and Mae West, still reign?
I think so. The original Ruth might have scorned the idea of a face-lift for herself, but I think she'd like the nips, tucks and new features now sported by her restaurant.
I've always enjoyed the food at Ruth's, though I have had mixed service experiences — never unfriendly, but sometimes painfully slow.
But when we visited, the dining room was running like a top — a change no doubt helped along by the greatly expanded and improved kitchen.
The indoor space is recognizable but all gussied up, with a mellow golden sheen, comfy high-backed booths, pretty (but not pretentious) tile on the wall leading into the kitchen and an immaculate ladies' bathroom with plants in pots shaped like Ruth's signature flamingos.
The original trolley-car structure is still proudly on display, its wood shining like glass, and diners in the lower room can still run their hands across its green-painted rivets.
The patio is still one of Salt Lake's great spots to enjoy a summer evening: mellow brick underfoot, leaves rustling overhead, a creek sending up its trickly song from somewhere nearby and delectable food in front of you, waiting to be devoured.
It was a patio night, so we started our meal al fresco with a couple of orders of juicy, batter-dipped, golden brown onion rings and the vegetable pot stickers.
These were wonderful, nicely browned and chewy outside and filled with a thoughtful mix of veggies. They came with spicy-sweet plum sauce for dipping.
One of my daughters had grilled cheese, perfectly crisp and full of what she called "extra oozy" mixed cheeses, while my 7-year-old daughter and my son had the fabulous macaroni and cheese. I'd love to take home an entire pan of the stuff just for myself so I could enjoy its big, soft noodles in rich, creamy-sharp sauce with crunchy crumb topping. With their mac they had great fresh-fruit salads of generous proportions.
My oldest daughter and husband had the meatloaf, she the entree and he the meatloaf "burger" on a toasted bun. This diner classic is a gem at Ruth's, firm and subtly seasoned with a gorgeous crust. On the sandwich, the slice of meatloaf had been briefly grilled, giving it wonderful sear and chewiness all around.
My mom, visiting from Texas and luxuriating in the cool of Utah's mountainside shade, had the portabella mushroom sandwich, which got the same loving attention as the meatloaf with its balsamic-marinated portabella cap perfectly grilled and topped with caramelized onions, roasted tomatoes, fresh spinach and Swiss cheese on toasted pesto focaccia bread. The concentrated flavor of the mushroom, onions and tomatoes made it at once rich and light.
My brother had the Cajun bacon bleu burger, a superior rendition of its kind with a big, well-seared patty topped with crisp-chewy bacon, loads of crumbled bleu cheese and Ruth's kicky barbecue sauce. I found the bun just a little over-toasted, but it didn't crumble like I expected it would.
I expected kick from the gazpacho that started my meal, but it surprised me by tasting beautifully mellow, smooth and elegant, with a bottom full of fresh and crunchy carrots, onions and celery and sweet little shrimp. It was such a perfect summer dish that I wished I'd had a big bowl of it.