344 S. 300 East, Salt Lake City ; 801-328-4900
This iconic Salt Lake landmark thrives despite mediocre "Old World" Italian food. Live piano music livens up the place.
Cuisine: Italian, Cafe
Hours: M-Th, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; F-S, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Su, 4-8:30 p.m.
Liquor: Full Service
Reservations: Not accepted/necessary
Recommended Dishes: Cinegrill salad, corned beef on rye, spaghetti, Kahlua Kup.
June 2, 2006
Cinegrill regulars come for nostalgia, stay for salad
By Lesli J. Neilson
There is some debate as to when the original Cinegrill opened — 1946, 1948 or 1952. Surviving several location changes and a seven-year hiatus, the illustrious Italian eatery has loyal patrons, young and old.
Reviewing a legend is tricky business. On a lunch visit, the place and the food felt like nothing special. Red-and-white-checked oilcloths top the tables in C-shaped, burgundy vinyl banquettes. A fuchsia neon tube wends its way through the restaurant. A silent jukebox sits between the two dining rooms. I wondered why the restaurant, more diner than distinguished, and the food, more dull than delectable, has so many admirers.
To enlighten me, I stacked the deck with some 50-year Cinegrill veterans as my dining companions. Their fond culinary recollections and the live piano music during a recent dinner visit almost got to me. Closing my eyes, I tried to imagine Eugene Jelesnik serenading guests with his violin. But alas, a legend in his own right, he is no more and I had other things on my mind, like the food.
To read the menu is to step back in time. Words like "continental," "Old World" and "Italian-style" dot the no-nonsense paper menus. I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on an adjacent diner at lunch. He asked his out-of-town dining companion if he could order for her. "They're famous for their . . . salad," he said.
Cinegrill's salad consists of chilled iceberg lettuce laden with the restaurant's prized dressing of olive oil, vinegar, garlic (lots of garlic), tomatoes, Gorgonzola cheese, capers, dry mustard, salt and pepper. It is topped with provolone cheese, pepperoni and a pepperoncino ($5.15 lunch size, $5.95 dinner salad and $8.15 dinner size).
While I found the retro salad to be tremendously overdressed, making the hardy iceberg translucent, a dining companion asked for more dressing for his. Obviously, he is one of many: The salad dressing is available by the pint for $7.35.
Another specialty, corned beef on rye or garlic roll ($8.55 with spaghetti, lasagna, soup or salad), was dry on two occasions. Slatherings of horseradish and mustard did little to improve matters. The corned beef is made in-house; a little more fat would do wonders. Italian-style minestrone ($4.85 and $4.25 with a garlic roll), a mélange of tomatoes, celery, carrots, onions, peas, okra, green beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, cabbage, elbow macaroni and oregano, hit all the right notes.
Other dishes exuded Old World allure — copious, replete with thick, ruby sauces and little adornment.
Italian-style spaghetti ($5.20, $6.70 à la carte, $10.70 with soup or salad and a roll) came topped with a meaty marinara sauce that would make a Neapolitan nonna proud, but woefully it was served in an aluminum bowl. Continental lasagna ($7.40, $5.80 à la carte, $11.40 with soup or salad and a roll) arrived deconstructed — was it ever constructed? — with wide noodles swimming in a beef- and onion-speckled ragu. Tomato "primavera" sauce, with nary a discernible vegetable and a cloak of provolone, hid the Cinegrill chicken ($12.10 with lasagna, spaghetti, soup or salad and a roll), a boneless, skinless, moist breast that lacked salt.
Choose from 11 offerings to top the old-fashioned pizza ($7.30, $11.50 and $14.50 à la carte, $9.65 and $13.80 with soup or salad and a roll), a decent thick-dough pie with marinara and melted cheese. A 10-ounce rib-eye steak ($14.90 à la carte, $17.10 with lasagna, spaghetti, soup or salad and a roll), cooked past the requested medium-rare, needed seasoning but was tender.
One item that disappointed was the Armenian-style shish kebab ($12.10 à la carte, $14.50 with soup or salad and a roll), cubes of beef filet that I doubt ever saw a skewer, tossed with mushrooms and onions over white rice, surrounded by an insipid blond sauce.
Also dull was the cube steak sandwich ($8.30 with spaghetti, lasagna, soup or salad), little more than tender meat between a buttered, toasted sesame seed bun. Lettuce and tomato should come with it, rather than offered alongside with steak sauce, ketchup and mustard as embellishments.
In need of something sweet after all the garlic, we were told the cheesecake, tiramisu and chocolate ecstasy cake ($3.55 each) are supplied by Sysco, but the "spumoni" ice cream and the "Kahlua Kup" ($2.95 each) are made by local Fendall's Ice Cream using Cinegrill recipes.
At first glance, spumoni ice cream, a blend of vanilla ice cream, nuts and candied fruit with a rum-Cointreau-flavored sauce and toasted coconut, and the Kahlua Kup looked to be simple rock-hard ice cream in a paper ramekin. Our server instructed us to flip the cup over and remove the paper to get at it. Sticky fingers aside, my dining companions and I couldn’t wait for the “Kahlua” flavored sauce to soften, and dove into the coffee ice cream with chopped walnuts dusted in coffee grounds. I was suddenly struck by thoughts of creating my own Kahlua Kup at home, updated with real Kahlua in a moat of hot coffee. Cold tiramisu and cheesecake weren’t worth the calories, and the chocolate ecstasy cake was only slightly better.
The wine list is brief — seven bottlings in all (two whites, one "blush," one sparkling and three reds). The most expensive is a chianti for $19.95. Wine also comes by the glass ($5.50) or half-carafe ($14.75-$16.25). Beer and limited spirits are also available.
Whether it is the prices, the bountiful portions or the nostalgia, the customers keep going and the Cinegrill seems to be satisfied with making its own music.
Tribune's rating system
1 star: Fair
2 stars: Average
3 stars: Above average
4 stars: Excellent
$ Entree under $10
$$$$ Above $25
1 bell: Quiet (under 65 decibles)
2 bells: Can talk easily (65-70)
3 bells: Talking somewhat difficult (70-75)
4 bells: Must talk in raised voices (75-80)
A bomb: Too noisy for normal conversation (80 plus)
The Tribune covers the cost of all meals at reviewed restaurants. Star ratings are based on a minimum of two visits. Ratings are updated continually based on at least one revisit. There is no connection between reviews and advertising.