Tradition & Elegance: Dining on the Rim

Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine, February 2019

Written by Gail G. Collins

The best things in life change little. They are honed by time and elements, yet their inherent value grows dearer. This is true of the Grand Canyon’s vistas and the fare served in El Tovar’s dining room, where the panorama from a coveted table may distract you from the favored French onion soup. The signature recipe has been served for nearly four decades. Though a typical room at the luxe lodge cost $4 per night when it opened in 1905, the standards have remained as high as the “perpendicular mile from rim to river,” as recorded in the primer on El Tovar in Princeton University Library’s Collection of Western Americana.

El Tovar captivates guests with a grand entry. Its dark timber, Native American rugs and art with an array of wildlife on display matches the natural grandeur of its perch on canyon’s edge.

“The Grand Canyon is the destination of a lifetime,” said executive chef Matthew McTigue. “El Tovar is on par with that.”

McTigue interned in the kitchen before graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1995, and the job hasn’t lost its allure. While it’s challenging to recruit to a remote locale, a dedicated staff has built a life there with careers clocking 20 to 40 years. Thomas Ratz has served guests for 38 years. His affection for the park extended to stenciling red deer on the dining room walls, redolent of pictographs on Bright Angel Trail, and collecting Fred Harvey memorabilia. Harvey, El Tovar’s founder, was a talented visionary, who fulfilled the need for quality hotels and service for weary travelers heading West.

“We are like a family,” McTigue said. “People have raised their kids here.” This tight community inhabits homes listed on the historic register and some walk to work.

The Grand Canyon attracts an international crowd, and El Tovar’s menu reflects a comparable Continental cuisine with a southwest streak. It is classic, yet seasoned.

Tamales are made in-house with tender, seasoned shreds of beef or pork chili and served with chipotle crema. Savory scallops float on mango puree with prickly pear syrup balancing a raw, lively pineapple-jicama slaw. Soup de jour invites ladling in the bacon-corn chowder, hearty with chunky potato and queso fresco or the heritage onion with sweet ribbons swimming in robust broth. “It is deceptively simple,” admitted McTigue. The recipe can even be found on tea towels for sale in the gift shop.

The crab stack is the chef’s creation piling lump meat with avocado and tomato plus cumin and cilantro olive oil and topped with hand battered onion rings. The house salad boasts shredded jicama, goat cheese, berries, tomatoes and pine nuts for a gorgeous beginning to any meal. Spinach salad with gorgonzola, bacon and fried shallots on a wheel of Granny Smith apples and endive leaves creates a complex flavor profile. Try the lively salmon tostado, layered with mixed greens, roasted corn salsa and crema with a side of black beans and rice.

The New York strip is Arizona grown and crusted in a coffee-cumin rub with a demi-glace crafted of New Belgium’s 1554 black lager and a side of pepper-jack potato wedges. The mixed grill includes filet mignon, semi-boneless quail and poached shrimp with brown butter mashed potatoes to fill a belly decadently. The seabass is moist with a roasted tomato and fennel sauce plus sprightly sweety drop peppers and bright snap peas. Cauliflower puree with saffron adds velvety appeal.

An extensive list of mostly domestic wines and some local brews are available to accompany the meal. To close, seriously sweet choices, such as fruit sabayon, a chocolate mousse taco, flourless chocolate cake with crème anglaise and strawberry sauce and seasonal crème brûlée, tempt diners.

“We want to serve people and make them happy,” said McTigue. “We are the entrance to the experience at the Grand Canyon.”

Like the eternal canyon, meals are served on timeless Mimbreño china. Crafted by architect Mary Colter with Native American-inspired images in black and grey, the china mimics that used on the Santa Fe Railway, which brought guests to El Tovar. On a busy day, the restaurant serves 500 guests, and it’s usually busy.

“The atmosphere at the Grand Canyon is something to admire every day,” said McTigue. “We see it fresh through others’ eyes.” That includes an impressive guest list, such as Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and celebrities, like Nicholas Cage, Al Pacino, Will Smith and Ron Howard. McTigue reminded, “Still, we are all made small by the Grand Canyon.”

The chef’s stellar advice:  After dinner, go out and look up at the night sky, where the stars seem brighter and closer than elsewhere. “It’s the best show on the planet.” NAMLM