By Leah Duran | Photo by Paul Markow
A century ago, your dinner fare at El Tovar Dining Room and Lounge might have consisted of corned ox tongue and pickled vegetables. Though you won't find those items on the menu today, you can still enjoy the same view of the Grand Canyon that travelers experienced when the hotel opened in 1905. Ten tables face the Seventh Natural Wonder, and for the lucky few who get to sit there, the scenery is even more impressive than the menu.
To please a wide variety of culinary tourists, dishes are centered on classic Continental cuisine with a Southwestern influence, says Matthew McTigue, El Tovar's executive chef. "People come here expecting the Wild West, so we try to balance the menu."
Meanwhile, traces of the past linger on the Mimbreno dinnerware, which replicates the fine china used on the Santa Fe Railway that once brought travelers to the Grand Canyon. Architect Mary Colter, who designed the nearby Hopi House and other Grand Canyon buildings, sketched the Native American-inspired patterns.
For special occasions, guests can request El Tovar's private dining room, which is lined with the same dark, rich hues of Oregon pine that frame the high ceilings of the main dining area. Legend has it that the room was created for President Theodore Roosevelt, a champion of national parks. The walls are banded with red stencils of deer, painted by longtime server Thomas Ratz in the style of the pictographs found at the top of Bright Angel Trail.
Like the geologic wonder to the north, the breakfast menu at El Tovar is hearty, and ranges from traditional pancakes and waffles to the more exotic polenta corncakes with prickly pear-pistachio butter. Dinner can be substantial, too. Be sure to try the fresh catch of the day or any of the Black Angus selections. The meat comes from Creekstone Farms, a Kansas company that runs an all-natural beef program.
"It's the kind of stuff high-end restaurants in Manhattan are going to because it's that good of a product," says McTigue, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York. Items with sustainable or organic ingredients are marked on the menu.
Another good option and a house favorite is the green-chile chicken soup with Arizona Gunslinger hot sauce. To quell the heat, the restaurant's wine list boasts 94 choices, all but one of which are domestic. There's beer, too, including some impressive choices from the Grand Canyon Brewing Co. in Williams. The best beverage, however, might be the Belgian hot chocolate — it's topped with bittersweet chips that are melted into real whipped cream and whole milk. For more sugar, satisfy your dessert cravings with pies and cheesecakes that mimic the seasons. The signature Desert Napoleon offers baked, cinnamon-dusted flour tortillas that emerge out of sabayon, a dessert that's spiked with Marsala wine.
No matter when you visit El Tovar, which has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1974, be sure to make dinner reservations — they can be made up to six months in advance with a room reservation or 30 days in advance without one. And while you're waiting for your table, relax on the veranda and let the majesty of the Canyon suffuse you.
El Tovar Dining Room and Lounge is located on the Grand Canyon's South Rim. For more information, call 928-638-2631 or visit www.grandcanyonlodges.com/dining.