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As Utah restaurants continue to make it onto more and more "Best Of" and "Hottest in America" dining lists, demand (and often prices) is rising to meet gastronomic interest levels.

Gone are the days when one could walk into a downtown Salt Lake restaurant on weekend evenings or brunch without a reservation. Now, fine-dining establishments have dinner entrées regularly approaching the $30 mark, with prices spiking to near $50 for some orders.

So, aside from trusting the local restaurant critics to guide you to value-worthy plates, how can Utah diners taste their way through the best of the best without breaking the bank? Lunch!

It's an idea that Salt Lake restaurateur Scott Evans — owner of Pago, Finca, Hub & Spoke and East Liberty Tap House — takes with him when he travels. He encourages Salt Lake diners to test it out in Utah, too.

"My whole plan when I travel is I try to seek out some of the top restaurants for lunch or bar service," he says. "It's something that really allows me to taste the chef's food — not a full picture of all their talent — but it gives me a chance to be in the space, feel the atmosphere and taste some of the food that's thoughtfully prepared from an excellent chef at not the full price of their peak dining experience."

A wide variety of Salt Lake restaurants have adopted the lunch hour as an opportunity to bring new customers in the door with smaller portions and lower prices while sharing their food philosophy.

At Kyoto in the Sugar House area, chef Peggi Ince-Whiting says, "It's so important for us to have continuity across the lunch and dinner menus and to maintain the high quality coming out of our kitchens. Many people get introduced to Kyoto at lunch, and we want them to have a good idea of what they can expect in terms of the quality cuisine, seasoned service staff and Japanese ambiance."

Traditional items at Kyoto, such as the teriyaki and sukiyaki selections, along with katsu and tempura, are offered for lunch at nearly half the dinner price. A top sirloin steak teriyaki is available for $10 at lunch for a 5-ounce portion, while the dinner portion of 9 ounces is $20. And while the lunch and dinner shrimp tempura both deliver five pieces of crunchy, fried shrimp, the $10 lunch serves smaller-sized shrimp (21/25) while the $19 dinner features large-sized (16/20) shrimp to make up the margin difference.

Mixing up the menu • Several Salt Lake City chefs are choosing to feature a high-end, center-of-the-plate protein dish at lunch but make changes throughout the day with the accompaniments to value price.

Caffé Molise owner and chef Fred Moesinger recalls the pollo alla gratella dish as an example. The tender, grilled chicken breast is marinated in garlic oil and balsamic vinegar and comes with a tangy sauce of artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes and gorgonzola cheese for both meals. But "at lunch it's served with aglio e olio [a roasted garlic pasta side]. At dinner, it's served with a dinner salad, garlic mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetable sides." Portions of the chicken breast are also smaller at lunch, with a 5-6-ounce breast piece versus the dinner 8-ounce size, and these changes are reflected in the prices: $12.95 for lunch and $19.95 at dinner.

At Pago, Evans points to similar changes. The pork sugo dish appears on the lunch ($15) and dinner ($23) menu, but while the braised pork shoulder is exactly the same meat, sauce and preparation, the lunch portion features 2 ounces less pork and an orzo side instead of the housemade pappardelle pasta served at dinner.

"There are very few places at capacity for lunch so price-wise we are more aggressive with our margins," Evans continues. "It encourages us to figure out a way to offer a lower price point and be compelling and be worth the drive, so we have aggressive pricing."

Smaller portions, smaller price • Changes to portion size are often one of the easiest ways for restaurants to reduce food costs to accommodate lunch diners' smaller appetites and budgets.

"For Alamexo it was rather simple," says chef and owner Matthew Lake. "The bulk of our lunch menu is scaled-down versions of items from our dinner menu. All of the enchiladas are featured on both menus. Also all of the tacos with the exception of the taco carnitas that we only feature at lunch."

An order of enchiladas suizas, stuffed with roasted pulled chicken and baked in a tomatillo cream salsa topped with melted queso Chihuahua, cilantro and white onion, will fill up lunch patrons for $13.95, while the larger dinner portion runs $17.95. Both meals come with sides of rice and beans, while the complimentary dessert is buñuelos drizzled with local honey for lunch as opposed to churros at dinner.

Similarly, the carne asada taco lunch ($13.95) comes out sizzling with 7 ounces of steak and three tortillas, while dinner diners can fill up on a hefty 12 ounces of red meat consumed in four tortillas for $19.95.

But it isn't just cost that Lake factored in when setting up the lunch menu. "We are also very conscious about the lunchtime diner going back to the office and having to work. Too much food is counter to productivity the rest of the day."

In Holladay, Layla Mediterranean Grill and Mezze takes a slightly different tack and delivers most of its salads and entrées in full and half portions for lunch and dinner servings, listed together on one menu all day — with a small selection of signature dishes available after 5 p.m.

Take, for example, the Lebanese moussaka, an exotic dish of eggplant slices layered with beef, onions, pine nuts and spices baked in a tangy tomato sauce and served over vermicelli rice. Lunch portions are $12.50, while the dinner serving at $16.50 can easily provide leftovers for another meal later.

Timing is critical • Although budget is a top consideration for diners, limited lunch hours also shape menu offerings.

"For lunch, most people have to rush and get back to their day so we want to make sure that those who may only have time to come visit us for lunch get the same amazing dishes available to them as if they were visiting us for dinner in smaller portions and prices," Kyoto's Ince-Whiting says.

From the restaurant side, Moesinger explains that some menu distinctions at Caffé Molise are made based on execution and demand. "Some of the more expensive items take longer to prepare and our customers are on an hourly lunch break from the office or at a convention, so they need something quick."

Evans says he hopes more Utahns will discover the hidden potential of dining at great restaurants during off-peak times.

"It would be great to see that change over time here," he says. "For me, I want every opportunity to dine whenever a restaurant is open. You're going to have the chance to taste excellent food and experience the service and atmosphere when they aren't slammed."

He also suggests that lunch is an opportune time to ask questions of the wait staff regarding their recommendations, specials and the like. "They tend to be more generous if you are curious, inquisitive and complimentary because you've been interested in what they are doing." He is frequently rewarded with a sample taste from the kitchen or the latest special being tested because of his off-hour visits.

Now, just imagine the budget lunchtime possibilities in Utah.