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5 Food Thoughts: The history of Salt Lake’s Downtown Dine O’Round

Since 2003, the Downtown Dine O’Round has connected disparate Salt Lake restaurants and foodies. One of the event’s co-founders told us about how the event started, and how downtown’s dining community has changed.

A plate from Martine Cafe in Salt Lake City. Martine is among the 30 participating restaurants in this year’s Downtown Dine O’Round, happening Oct. 18-Nov. 3.
Provided by the Downtown Alliance

SALT LAKE CITY — Just how willing are people to try a new restaurant?

That’s the question facing every restaurant owner. For them, getting people in the door can be an uphill battle. It isn’t just about trying something new — if someone visits a new restaurant, it means they’re turning down a trip to a restaurant they already love.

Enter the Downtown Dine O’Round. Salt Lake’s annual food event kicks off its 17th year on Oct. 18. From Oct. 18 through Nov. 3, 30 participating restaurants give customers a special menu of discounted two-item lunch meals and three-course dinners.

“The price point during Dine O’Round might bring them in, but it’s the food they experience that brings them back,” said Judy Cullen, one of Dine O’Round’s founders, during a recent interview with the Deseret News. “And that’s a win-win for everyone.”

Cullen doesn’t plan the Dine O’Round anymore — she’s currently a director at Visit Salt Lake — but for her, the annual event remains a point of pride. Her career in Salt Lake’s food industry has taken her from Gastronomy, Inc., to Salt Lake Brewing Company to Tsunami Restaurant & Sushi Bar. The local food scene has changed a lot during those years.

In her office on a recent afternoon, Cullen told us about Dine O’Round’s origins and how downtown Salt Lake’s restaurant scene has adapted to changing foodie habits.

Judy Cullen, one of the founders of Salt Lake City’s Downtown Dine O’Round, outside her office in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019.
Court Mann, Deseret News

1. Where the creators drew inspiration

In the early 2000s, Gastronomy, Inc. founder and president John Williams regularly visited San Francisco, which hosted a restaurant week every January. Williams thought Salt Lake City could do something similar. He and Cullen formed an exploratory committee, which included reps from downtown restaurants such as Squatters Pub and the Metropolitan, as well as folks from the Downtown Alliance.

Together, they looked at citywide restaurant events in Vancouver, San Francisco and New York City and traveled to NYC for its renowned restaurant week.

Cullen said the New York City event could be strict: If a participating restaurant forgot to provide customers with a special event menu, they were cut from the lineup the following year.

“The folks in New York were a little more hardcore than we were,” she said. “We didn’t want to be quite that Draconian.”

2. What to expect from the Dine O’Round

Salt Lake’s Dine O’Round is pretty straightforward: From Oct. 18 to Nov. 3, participating restaurants give customers a special menu of discounted two-item lunch meals and three-course dinners. For lunch, these meals are at $10, $15 and $20 price points. For dinner, it’s $20, $30 and $40. Over these 17 days, customers can order from a restaurant’s Dine O’Round menu as many times as they want. Certain specs have changed since the event’s inaugural year in 2003 — how long the event lasts, the number of price points, the prizes for participating, etc. — but the overall approach has stayed relatively static.

3. Why the Dine O’Round succeeds

Cullen said downtown’s restaurant owners quickly got on board. But the servers themselves weren’t so excited. Cheaper meals meant smaller tips.

“But we said, ‘Look, a gratuity off a $60 tab is better than a gratuity off no tab,’” Cullen said. “People coming in is better than not having guests in your restaurant.”

While the Dine O’Round discounts got people in the door, their appetites went beyond the discounts. According to Cullen, restaurants discovered that customers would often order a full-priced menu item instead. If customers stuck to the discounted Dine O’Round menu, they were more likely to splurge on drinks.

A sandwich from Caputo’s Market & Deli. The restaurant is among those participating in Salt Lake’s Downtown Dine O’Round.
Provided by the Downtown Alliance

4. How to define modern fine dining

A few Saturdays ago, Cullen got dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steak House. Looking around that evening, she noticed customers wearing shorts and blue jeans — a stark contrast to her time as a server at the New Yorker. Back then, fine dining also meant fine dressing. But now? Not so much.

“There’s still a place for a white tablecloth and nice silverware, but the dining demographic has changed,” Cullen said. “You can have a fine dining experience, but that doesn’t have to mean highbrow. People are looking for food that is delicious, that is made in innovative ways, using local ingredients whenever possible. And that is fine dining, as opposed to getting dressed up in a suit or party dress and going to the New Yorker.”

5. When people stop dining out

As it turns out, very rarely. Studies show that when diners are struggling financially, they cut back on big expenses like vacations but continue to visit their favorite restaurants.

“Going out to eat is considered almost like a mini vacation,” Cullen said. “It’s an opportunity to get away, to be taken care of, to have a couple of hours to yourself to enjoy an experience — as you would on a vacation.”

Patrons eating at White Horse Spirits and Kitchen in Salt Lake City.
Provided by the Downtown Alliance