Hogle Zoo's new restaurant should have a sign, "Please DO feed the animals."
The two-legged kind.
For the first time in the zoo's history, guests can dine indoors.
As of April 30, the old outdoor, order-at-the-window Beastro concession stand has been surpassed by an newly built quick-casual cafe with a wider menu, such as pizza, panini sandwiches, salads and mac 'n' cheese, along with the usual burgers, fries, hot dogs and chicken tenders.
"We are open all winter and summer, and people really needed a place to get out of the heat in July and August, and come in from the cold in the winter," said Erica Hansen, the zoo's community relations coordinator.
The new building seats 106, and the west side windows offer a view of the elephants. Last year, the zoo had more than a million visitors.
"It's become a bit of a trend for zoos to offer more high-quality, fresh food," said Seth Palmer, general manager of Service Systems Associates, which runs the food concessions.
He said the new Beastro design was based off of a similar indoor venue at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs.
"This is just our third day of operation, but I've seen the same school bus drivers come back every day," said Palmer, noting that this is the time of year for school field trips.
Many families who visit places like the zoo, amusement parks, sports events, etc., try to avoid concession-stand food, because it's usually overpriced and under-quality. Palmer said there's been some effort made to keep prices close to what you would pay elsewhere for similar quality. But you won't find any $1.99 fast-food kids' meals here; most meals are around $5.50-$6.50. One of the least expensive options is a slice of pizza for $2.95.
Palmer pointed out that the cheeseburger is a 1?3-pound fresh Angus beef patty. There's also a black bean veggie burger. The crisp-coated chicken tenders are real chicken breast, not spongy "nuggets." The "artisan" sandwiches and paninis come with house-made kettle chips. The 16-inch family-size pizzas ($19.95- $24.99) are cooked in a 600-degree oven for a crispy outer crust. The creamy, gooey mac 'n' cheese ($3.95) has a house-made cheddar sauce and toasted panko crumb topping.
Every day there's a special offered. Last Thursday when I visited, the special was barbecue ribs, served with corn bread, a watermelon wedge and sweet potato fries, for $8. Other specials so far have included shrimp tacos and Philly cheesesteak sandwiches.
I dined at the Beastro with my 4-year-old granddaughter, Jayden, who was excited about the juice drink that came in a hot-pink lion-shaped container. It costs around $3, but it can do double-duty as both a souvenir and a refillable water bottle. She didn't care that the zoo doesn't have any lions.
The executive chef is Cory Crozier, a native of Tremonton. Before coming to the Beastro, Crozier cooked at an upscale retirement home, and was also a private chef of a yacht.
"I plan to use some of my farm boy skills in our garden where we will grow some of our fresh herbs, in some land just west of the giraffes," he said.
Sous chef Anthony Scarborough has cooked in various Salt Lake restaurants including Log Haven, Squatter's, Hard Rock Café and Wild Grape.
"I've always loved the zoo," Scarborough said. "My major in college was biology and zoology, so the job sounded like a lot of fun. They giving us a lot of leeway here to use our creative powers and it seems like we're off to a good start."
The chefs are gearing up for next month's opening of Rocky Shores, a new exhibit with polar and grizzly bears, sea lions, seals and otters. The outdoor concession stand there will serve a mesquite burger with house-made dry sauce, or a spicier version called Safari sauce.