Comfort, it turns out, is not relative, at least with food. No matter the cuisine or the culture that any given dish springs from, it will contain one neurological common denominator, buried in the primal place in our brains: Nostalgia
In search of Salt Lake’s best comfort food, we asked six restaurateurs and chefs what comfort food means to them. Up next, Vertical Diner shares their plant-based philosophy to eating well.
The Person: Ian Brandt
The Restaurant: Vertical Diner
Ian Brandt was not always
a vegan. He grew up eating the quintessential American meat and potatoes fare and classic family dishes. “Growing up, lasagna—that was always a great comfort food item,” Brandt remembers. “I always wanted to be Italian. Growing up in Philadelphia, surrounded by Italians, it always seemed like the Italians had the most food.”
“Anything that you grew up eating with your family that takes you back to your roots—that is how I define comfort,” says Brandt. The foods that become the most comforting to us as adults are often attached to warm memories of childhood. These are the foods that help us feel safe. But, after going vegan at 22 years old, Brandt discovered many of his go-to comfort foods were no longer available to him. “I eventually found ways to still eat them by making them vegan,” he says. “And over the years, I came up with other vegan items that I enjoyed.“
Now, as the owner of Vertical Diner, an all-plant-based restaurant, he faces a similar quandary. How do you deliver the homey experience of diner cuisine to people who might not be familiar with vegan dishes? “That’s the biggest challenge we have—making guests comfortable,” Brandt says. “So we train our servers to curate the meal that way.” They recommend dishes that are familiar diner favorites with a vegan spin: vegan buffalo chicken wings, nachos, mashed potatoes and vegan gravy, and vegan macaroni and cheese. Other comforting options require no such spin as they can easily be vegan on their own: fried Brussels sprouts, hand-cut french fries, and blueberry pancakes. The resulting message, “We’re an American diner that just happens to be plant-based and vegan,” says Brandt.
Vertical Diner’s American Diner Plate is a vegan version of good old-fashioned, simply delicious, straightforward diner food. It’s your choice of hand-cut french fries or mashed potatoes with Tender Tigers (plant-based chicken tenders), all smothered in gravy. Wash it down with a damn fine cup of coffee or, better yet, a strong chai. “We make our own house chai,” says Brandt. “That warming spice is comforting, and you can get it hot in the wintertime or iced in the summer.” And, if you’re really peckish, try the carrot cake for dessert.
Brandt not only strives to make diners comfortable with the food but with the atmosphere of Vertical Diner as well. “I think the nature of the diner encompasses the comfort of eating out. Nowadays, it’s hard to find mid-range priced restaurants that also have table service,” says Brandt, but they’re not going to hurry anyone out the door. “An American diner is a place to hang out with family and friends, drink coffee and linger for an hour or two. We try not to rush people. We give them space to enjoy the company. The nature of the diner is comfort in and of itself.”
If You Go…
234 W. 900 South, SLC, (801) 484-8378
Open every day, 9 a.m.-10 p.m. (breakfast served all day)
See more stories like this and all of our food and drink coverage. And while you’re here, why not subscribe and get six annual issues of Salt Lake magazine’s curated guide to the best of life in Utah.