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Where diners joked that the entertainment doubled as dinner

Published March 18, 2016 12:46 pm

Short-lived restaurant was popular for its fantasy atmosphere, generous portions.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Editor's note • In this regular series, The Salt Lake Tribune explores the once-favorite places of Utahns, from restaurants to recreation to retail. If you have a spot you'd like us to explore, email whateverhappenedto@sltrib.com with your ideas.

Menus included tales from the saga of Chortle Nabob, Hare Extraordinaire, said to have founded Hare Hollow after "the frightful Wars of the Winds."

Diners watched through large windows as Nabob's floppy-ear descendants foraged on the grounds at 6121 Highland Drive — and baked rabbit was the signature dish, too.

Patrons would point first at the menu then outside.

"I'll have THAT one."

"They would laugh it up like they were the first one to make that joke," said Kyle Engman, a shy Skyline High student of 15 when he helped open Hare Hollow in 1975.

In truth, the pet rabbits were safe from the oven at what may have been the Salt Lake Valley's first restaurant to double as a licensed roadside zoo — popular for wedding breakfasts, proms and other occasions on which diners sought an abundance of food and whimsy.

The scene was imagined by Mike Weilenmann, the eldest child of longtime restaurateur and onetime Utah Democratic Party Chairman Milton Weilenmann.

Weilenmann wanted to open a restaurant of his own after working for his father at Bratten's Seafood Grotto, so he teamed with an attorney to buy the Panorama Inn.

The L-shaped building looked out on a formal garden area that would become home to deer, turkeys, rabbits, guinea hens, pheasants and the restaurant's namesake — creating not only a unique dining experience but a unique set of challenges for a late-20s man who knew restaurants but not zookeeping.

Rabbits often mated, oblivious to both population-control efforts and their guests' sense of decency.

Grass and plants were in constant peril, so the ground had to be covered with straw or pine needles. Newly planted trees were whittled to toothpicks by a fallow deer buck.

A customer once entered the enclosure via an emergency exit and found himself pinned to the wall between the buck's antlers.

Another time, after a dog dug underneath the 20-foot fence, the panicked buck charged through one of the restaurant's plate-glass windows — unharmed but not rid of the dog.

A turkey perched atop a table for a better view of the ensuing standoff.

The buck's wasn't the only break-in. Weilenmann covered the front of the building with wood — "The idea was that you wouldn't know what to expect," he said — impressing burglars with the notion that they could score undetected.

Weilenmann had a silent alarm system, but "it finally got to the point where I would leave the office doors open, because they'd go in and break down the door."

Those headaches aside, business was good.

Hare Hollow came to be known for its generous portions. Each table received a basket of homemade breads, a relish tray with freshly cut vegetables, tossed salads, vegetable beef soup and the diners' choice of baked or broiled potatoes or brown rice.

Rabbit came baked or tender with tarragon cream sauce. Other entrees included a range of meats — beef, chicken, lamb, pork, trout, halibut and crab.

Russell Dow, who began working as a dishwasher in fall 1977 and later became a cook, said Hare Hollow had "one of the best menus I've ever tasted."

The Deseret News' Jay Livingood wrote that "the decor is outstanding" and "the meal was a delight."

That review led to "probably one of the worst nights of my life," Weilenmann laughed. "It got so crowded and we'd just opened and we weren't ready for it."

Animals came and went. Dow remembers that the notorious buck jumped "about 8 feet in the air" when ranchers tried to load him into a cattle trailer. A replacement muntjac deer died from a blood clot in its lungs. Someone dropped off an endangered turtle that was seized by the federal government.

"We were glad to give it to them," Weilenmann laughed. "The turtle didn't quite fit in."

Emboldened by Hare Hollow's success, Weilenmann opened what would become a longer-lived seafood restaurant, Seaman James Bartley.

"I thought, 'Wow, this is great. Now I'll just do another one and make twice as much money,' and it didn't turn out that way at all."

Hare Hollow's popularity declined as Weilenmann diverted his efforts to Seaman James Bartley. Before long — Weilenmann said it was sometime in the early '80s — he sold Hare Hollow to two brothers who'd worked there. It closed soon after.

The location since has housed a half-dozen eateries, including one owned by late Utah Jazz broadcaster Hot Rod Hundley. Currently occupying Nabob's mythical hollow: Spice Bistro, an Indian place.

But Hare Hollow would long connect the dozens of area high-schoolers and college students who worked there. Engman said he and his teen friends "thought we had died and gone to heaven" driving backhoes and utility vehicles ahead of the opening. He has fond memories of a tom turkey that would attack staffers with their backs turned, and Dow recalls trying to get the buck to chase him.

Both later would put themselves through college working at Weilenmann's other restaurant — where Dow met his wife, Anne — and credit Weilenmann as a profound influence on their lives.

Seaman James Bartley would be Weilenmann's last restaurant. Running restaurants is not as much fun as starting them, he said. But he still remembers the serenity of lying out in Hare Hollow's enclosure after busy nights, while the rabbits hopped about.


Twitter: @matthew_piper






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