Local opera-lovers, moviegoers, symphony-hounds, the clubbing set and I all share one thing in common. Come 9:30 p.m., as we set out in downtown Salt Lake City for late night eats, we have one hell of a time finding someplace decent to eat.
If I make it through restaurant doors five minutes before closing time, servers often exude surly resentment. That is, if you get any service at all. Late-night eaters are often relegated to chains or greasy spoons.
"If we were in Spain we wouldn't be the odd men out," my friend pontificated after being turned away from a Thai restaurant 15 minutes before they were officially closed. "In fact, dinner is just getting started!"
So, when late-night eaters find something like the new Bayleaf Café, it's a blessing: one big Southern-fried blessing.
The café is one of the latest of a wave of eateries on Main Street. It stands out for its unusual and welcome hours (open continuously from Friday 6 a.m. to Sunday 6 p.m.). The comfort food menu comes from disparate parts of the world. It unashamedly cradles bulgogi rice bowls ($6.99) alongside cheesy grits. The kitchen stays away from the vague and perilous "fusion" territory. Plus, most of the dishes ring in under $10. And anytime of day, that's a welcome figure.
So Bayleaf is open late, does comfort food and is affordable. This place must be a greasy spoon?
The feel is certainly one that doesn't take itself too seriously. But the vibe is more refined than your average diner. There's a composed nature to each dish. No gluttonous serving sizes, either. The space is bright and large and the kitchen is as sleek as any modern restaurant spectacle.
Countertop seating runs parallel to the open kitchen. During the week, office workers tend to sliced "NY" steak sandwiches ($7.99). On weekends, night owls take over, nursing softened Nilla wafers in bowls of "nanner puddin' " ($3.99). Pancakes for dinner or lunch? No problem. Breakfast is served all day at Bayleaf.
It doesn't matter if it's sweet tea ($1.99) or bubble tea ($2.99), huge mason jars are the drink ware of choice.
Then, there's the Asian-Dixie food. Out of this partnership, stick to the Dixie -- cheese grits (as a side $1.99) especially if it's with the barbecue shrimp and grits ($7.99); or the excellent fries ($5.99) smothered in country gravy (as a side $1.99) with its ivory heft and occasional fleck of pork.
The Asian side of the menu is not bad. The bulgogi is decent. Congee , a Chinese, savory rice porridge, makes an appearance in a slightly better than average guise. ($3.99-$5.99). And the stir-fried vegetables are for the most part crisp. But, compare a plate of tofu sauté ($5.99) alongside the meatloaf platter ($7.99) and you'll see what I mean.
Our old friend inconsistency rears its ugly head during busy lunches when kind servers are stretched too thin. Grits cool and congeal to paste. Fries and chicken fried chicken ($7.99) expire as they cool. And collard greens ($1.99) come out with braising juices the color of dirty dishwater instead of a translucent shade created when pork and water simmer for hours. There's less risk during the weekend, when the food always manages to come out nearly spot on.
When the timing is right, that fried chicken breast is moist with a crunchy-shell and the ideal partner for waffles. Yes. Waffles. Chicken and waffles ($8.99) aren't strange bedfellows. Long before there was bacon and chocolate, there was Roscoes Chicken and Waffles in Southern California. Before that, generations of Texans and Southerners knew good things happen when salty and sweet meet. Bayleaf's denser waffle bodes well against the protein.
One serving, along with a mug of sweet tea taken in the middle of night, does some good -- whether it's psychological or physiological. No matter what your budget, Bayleaf is a good option to have in your dining rounds. It is reliably good, unpretentious and affordable.
Best of all, you don't have to rush to eat before 9:30 p.m.
E-mail Vanessa Chang at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In a nutshell » We appreciate this downtown eatery for its 24-hour weekend service. But we like it even more for its quirky mix of Southern and Asian flavors. Best bets hail from Dixie like the chicken and waffles, sweet tea served in canning jars, barbecue shrimp and grits and the country gravy-smothered fries.
Location » 159 Main St., Salt Lake City; 801-359-8490
Online » bayleaf-cafe.com
Hours » Monday to Thursday, 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Open Friday at 6 a.m., then stays open continuously until Sunday 6 p.m.
Children's menu » No
Prices » $
Liquor » None
Reservations » No
Takeout » Yes
Wheelchair access » Yes
Outdoor dining » No
On-site parking » No
Credit cards » All major