In addition to casual restaurants like the Maswik Cafeteria, Bright Angel Restaurant, and the Western-themed Arizona Room, Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park is home to a fine dining restaurant, the El Tovar Dining Room. Few national parks feature in-park fine dining–“white tablecloth” full service and a leisurely meal go better with as the beginning of a night on the town than as an end to a day of strenuous hiking–but like Sequoia and Yellowstone (also featuring fine dining), but the Grand Canyon is both so remote and so popular with honeymooners and vacationers from overseas that it simply makes sense.
Located in the historic El Tovar Lodge and operated by parks management firm Xanterra, the El Tovar Dining Room offers modern Arizona cuisine, conversation-friendly quiet, a rustic ambiance, and, for the fortunate or the well-prepared, a great view of the Canyon. Its seasonal menu is a bit on the conservative side–don’t expect the bold experimentation of Janos or the unapologetically local flavor of Cafe Poca Cosa or The Grill at Hacienda del Sol–but not to the point where it doesn’t give a sense of place. Familiar crab cakes are dressed up with a “Sonoran remoulade”, black bean soup joins French onion, and one otherwise conventional salad comes with a “toasted piñon vinaigrette”, perfectly appropriate to “that side” of the Mogollon Rim. Entrées also show little twists even if not all-out localized: chile, corn, black beans rice, a tequila vinaigrette, pumpkinseed pesto.
The new Mrs Tucson Restaurant Examiner and I dropped in a few weeks ago for a “nice” dinner the evening before a hike on the Kaibab Trail. For reasons we can’t figure out–maybe due to photo-shoot-related makeup–our waiter’s manner towards her was starting to seem similar to that of Steve Martin in the Muppet Movie, except we didn’t even order Idaho’s finest. It was only after she made a joke about the wine service ritual–on that note, the El Tovar Dining Room has an excellent selection of half-bottles–that he lightened up and we decided to not complain to the management. I have the impression that service is usually polite and professional; our waiter must have been the exception.
Our meal–duck with a citrus glaze and penne with vegetables and shrimp in a white wine reduction–was quite good. In no way adventurous or interesting, but as good as could be expected from a “white tablecloth” restaurant: both the breast and thigh of the leg perfectly done, the black-bean rice fluffy and delicately seasoned, the pasta’s flavors well-balanced and the shrimp cooked just enough to not be raw but no more. Everything at the Grand Canyon or even with the name “Grand Canyon” on it tends to be pricier than the equivalent, but a meal at El Tovar is an exception. At a little over $20 per plate plus quite ordinarily-priced wine, the price for what we received is what we could expect to pay in Tucson, Phoenix, or Prescott. Besides polite service–and that was taken out of the tip!–all that was missing was the sense of culinary creativity one can count on from most similar establishments in Tucson, or at least those worth going to. The location, however, is a bonus, and while I cannot call the El Tovar Dining Room anything other than average or adequate, I’ll recommend it to those in the area looking for fine dining.
The El Tovar Dining Room is open daily for breakfast (6:30 am to 11:00 am) lunch (11:30 am to 2:00 pm), and dinner (5 pm to 10 pm.) Reservations are required for dinner and can be made by calling (928) 638-2631 extension 6432. In fall and winter it may suffice to program this number into one’s cellphone and call an hour or two in advance, but if visiting during the peak season or trying to get a table with a canyon view, it is best to make reservations months in advance. While the stated dress code is “casual”, “dressy” or “smart casual” appears to be the norm at dinner.