At a time when restaurants seem to be opening and closing with the frequency of a revolving door, those that survive deserve a closer look. One of those rare survivors is the Old Salt City Jail, perched just above Salt Lake City's skyline off busy 400 South. For over a decade, it has held down a secure position as one of the area's more reliable eateries.
When some of our out-of-town friends ventured down from the mountains for some hearty apres-ski cuisine this past holiday, we suggested the substantial meat and potatoes fare of the Old Salt City Jail. Since they left the area some years back (they've had more forwarding addresses than a circus act), they were a bit surprised that this restaurant was well past parole.The interior follows the predictable motif of many a Western steak house - an old Western town re-created with quaint dining areas chock-full of antiques, memorabilia and wanted posters. What sets apart Old Salt City Jail from similar establishments is the truly weathered feel. The decor suggests some of the rugged history of the West, from old photos of Salt Lake City's first police officers to the subdued lighting throughout. A special treat was the greeting and folksy guitar playing of an elderly gent decked out as the local sheriff.
The menu is fairly standard fare, printed on a reproduction of an 1870s newspaper. Several kinds of steaks, cuts of prime rib, barbecue ribs, along with a half dozen seafood dishes, are offered. Prices range between $10 and $18 and include bread, choice of soup, salad or salad bar, vegetable and potato or rice.
We sampled six different entrees as well as four of the desserts and several appetizers. While nothing really dazzled us, our overall experience was pleasant and predictable. A tender filet mignon ($14.95) was accompanied by a slightly congealed though nevertheless flavorful bearnaise sauce. The shrimp with the prime rib combination ($17.95) were tender and doused with a full-bodied garlic sauce. The prime rib, somewhat lukewarm, was a thick slice.
The chewy smoked pork chops ($10.95) were a bit ordinary; the barbecue combination ($9.95), a tender charbroiled chicken breast and three large beef ribs, were doused with sauce yet devoid of any distinctive flavor. Even a little salt and pepper would have helped. A bowl of clam chowder was bland and almost pasty in texture.
The salad bar offers a fresh array of vegetables, cut fruit and several cold pasta and potato salads. The best appetizer was the buttery sauteed mushrooms.
Other entrees, reflecting some of the current trends toward seafood and ethnic preparations, include cashew chicken, teriyaki chicken and Oriental breaded fried shrimp. Halibut, lemon sole and king crab are also regularly served. Two daily specials during our weekend visit were Cajun blackened catfish ($14.95) and grilled swordfish ($17.95).
The homemade mudpie dessert ($2.50) and several of the pies and cakes were very good, especially the Key lime pie and the Kentucky chocolate pie a la mode.
The Old Salt City Jail, like its time-worn theme, has a few rough edges. But its consistency and predictable menu should please the hungriest of inmates.
Rating: * * *
The Old Salt City Jail, 460 S. 1000 East, 355-2422. Open for dinner Monday through Thursday from 5:30 until 10 p.m.; until 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Sunday hours: 5:30 p.m. until 9 p.m. Accepts major credit cards and check with guarantee card.