Dining At The Parks: An Increasingly Tasteful Experience

How many years ago was it when your typical national park restaurant served chicken, steak, and trout and not much else. In truth, it was probably longer ago than I recall, but the point I hope to make is that dining in the parks in recent years has become a much, much more sophisticated, and tasteful, experience. From coast to coast dine in one of the park's


From coast to coast dine in one of the park's finer restaurants and you'll find creative cuisine that is built by chefs who more and more keep their eyes focused not just on your palate but on sustainability.

"I feel more and more chefs are becoming conscious of their environment," Chef Joe Mulligan, who oversees the dining rooms in Denali National Park and Preserve and Glacier Bay National Park, tells me. "For instance, we won't use seafood that's on an endangered list. There's no sense in depleting the natural resources that we have out there."

For decades dining largely was a secondary aspect of a national park trip, not perceived, if you will, as the main course. As a result dinner menus were fairly straightforward.

Dine at the El Tovar Hotel, Grand Canyon’s signature accommodation, 50 years ago and your options for dinner would have ranged from Southern Fried Chicken with Country Gravy or Calf’s Liver Saute smoothered with Bermuda Onions to prime rib or cold sliced breast of turkey and ham with corn relish.

During the past five or six years, though, there has been a drastic change in culinary experiences in the national parks. Oh, you can still find a short-order grill with hot dogs and hamburgers, but more and more you find creatively designed and executed meals that rival those found in New York or San Francisco.

These days at El Tovar you can choose from such appetizers as mozzarella roulades of prosciutto and basil pesto or “Clesan-Du-Klish,” which is Native American Blue Corn Tamales with roasted red pepper coulis and charbroiled corn salsa. Your entrée might be a flame-broiled peppercorn crusted filet mignon with roasted garlic sauce accompanied by gorgonzola mashed potatoes or a vegetarian dish, such as the broiled portabello Napoleon with a vanilla thyme risotto.

Sustainability is just as vital as creativity to many park chefs. At the Grand Canyon restaurants they pay attention to the Audubon Society’s Living Oceans Seafood Guide and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch protocol to decide which species should be removed from menus in a bid to support sustainable fishing. In recent years that concern led to removal of Chilean Sea Bass, Bluefin Tuna, Shark and Atlantic Swordfish.

In their place the chefs turned to rainbow trout, halibut, farmed freshwater catfish, Talipia, Albacore Tuna, Dungeness Crab, Mahi mahi and wild Alaskan salmon.

Chef Mulligan, who headed to work for concessionaire ARAMARK in Denali National Park earlier this year after working in a casino near Las Vegas, says the different clientele makes a big difference in his approach in the kitchen.

"They (park visitors) are more conscious of the environment, about having good food. When people come to Vegas, they want good foot, but it's a little bit different mentality there," he says. "They're willing to fill themselves with gluttonous amounts of food. It's just a whole different mentality in Vegas. People come up here, they want to see Alaska, they want to have some of the natural experience being out in the park.

"... Game is a big thing here. We sell an incredible amount of reindeer, fresh salmon and fresh halibut. I think the biggest thing, we do get people who really want to experience what Alaska has to offer, not an imported cuisine."

At Shenandoah National Park’s Big Meadows Lodge, diners can choose from a fixed-price menu that highlights sustainable dishes reflecting local culinary tastes and organic ingredients. The menu offers sustainable dishes such as local farm-raised trout stuffed with zucchini, pepper and tomato served with heirloom rice, and organic spring greens and locally harvested mushrooms.

In Olympic National Park, dinners at both the Kalaloch Lodge and Lake Quinault Lodge might feature Hearst Ranch grass-fed beef or fresh Northwestern wild king salmon and crème brulee.

At Yellowstone’s Lake Hotel, menu items include a Pinwheel of Wild Alaska Salmon with Sautéed Spinach and Organic Red Lentil ragout as well as Kal-bi Style Teriyaki Chicken made with free-ranch chicken from Fulton Valley Farms at the Silverado Resort in Napa Valley.

For Jim Chapman, the executive chef for Xanterra Parks and Resorts at Yellowstone, as with Chef Mulligan, a big part of menu planning is built around sustainable ingredients.

Yellcuisine_copy "We're just trying to be environmentally friendly," he says. "We're trying to consider what the impacts are on the choices of the foods that we put on the menu. We have several seafood items that we refuse to to serve just because of their status as over-fished, or the farming practices are destructive to the environment.

"We'll choose not to feature some of those items and we'll go with things that are harvested taken into consideration the environment and the ability not to over-fish so there will be a continuous supply of these types of items."

Though Xanterra has restaurants in a number of national parks throughout the country, each executive chef is given leeway when it comes to creating menus.

"The similarity would be that maybe we both have a lot of Alaska salmon. They do what they want with it there, I'll mix mine up," Chapman says. "I have nine properties in the park here. Maybe five of them have wild Alaska salmon, but none of them prepare it the same way."

Other sustainable cuisine menu items served at dining rooms overseen by Xanterra Parks & Resorts, which runs concessions in Yellowstone, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Zion and Everglades national parks, include Oregon Country Natural Beef; Kurobuta Pork; Kobe-style Beef; organic Fair Trade Certified Coffee from Green Mountain Coffee Roasters; local dairy; wines produced using sustainable practices; organic soy milk; farm-raised trout, shrimp and abalone; locally grown produce and hormone- and antibiotic-free elk, bison, chicken and venison.