Squatters started in 1989 as a great idea imported from Europe—a brewpub—and they did it well. Bangers and mash were among the first things on the menu, and the beer was, by today’s standards, so-so, but it was better than the sad brews others were making at the time. Popular right from the start, Squatters brought a whole retinue of imitators: brewpubs with their own, great beer and versions of pub food. None have become part of the DNA of Salt Lake in the way Squatters has. The first three restaurants out of my mouth when I talk Salt Lake eating to strangers looking for a place are Red Iguana, Market Street and Squatters.
Squatters is the new version of traditional. It’s the here-and-now version of the restaurant with the open-face gravy sandwiches, mashed potatoes and pie, where we could take the kids and the grandparents, knowing that everybody could find a meal, and there would be room for all. The portions are large, if only large enough. The beer is excellent—cold and very fresh. Many of the suds are made right on the same floor, behind the workshop windows at the front of the restaurant. In many cases, these brews are better than the same labels when purchased over at the Squatters/Wasatch outlet, The Beer Store. The servers are great, happy and agreeable, even though often stretched with the many large parties appearing spontaneously throughout the day.
Though the soul of Squatters is that of an achiever—bookish and obviously profitable—it still stands up for what it believes without taking the fun away or trespassing into condescending stinginess. It is a business with a sense of pride and a pattern of doing the right thing, even when the right thing is not cheaper, and even if it involves fighting for what is progressive—glass recycling and renewable energy use, for instance. The house meats are grass-grazing, animal-friendly and Niman Ranch–sourced. The flour for the bread and pizza is from locals, Big J Mills. The fact is, most of the food is locally sourced, sustainably farmed or harvested, organic and good for you—and good for Utah’s economy. Many of the items can also be made vegetarian or vegan.
As for beer (1/3 liter $3.99, 1/2 liter $4.99, pitcher $11.99), since you are at the little brewery, drink the tap stuff—it’s special and super fresh. I simply love the Full Suspension Pale Ale. I get a growler ($11.99, $7.99 refill) of it every single Saturday as a celebration of a working man’s weekend. Violin-colored, cloudy and distinctly marijuana-accented on the first sip, it quickly settles into a balance of malt and bitter, which tangos racily at any drinking temperature. It is both an ideal session beer and (the on-tap, at-the-restaurant version) desert island beer. The American Wheat Hefeweizen starts with a pinprick of bitter, which instantly resolves into a Nebraska-sized horizon of smooth. The Emigration Amber Ale is an excellent, balanced version of the beer-drinker’s go-to. It has a high-point big brother, the Big Cottonwood Amber ($4.99 12 oz), which is very similar, but has a little more alcohol, and breathes a little heavier going down the road. The Captain Bastard’s Oatmeal Stout hasn’t changed in forever––its colorful flavors are frontloaded, painting pretty pictures glass after glass. The Squatters’ IPA ($4.99 12 oz), a set of hops with many notes, starts like wet, splintered plywood on first taste, and goes down with taslow correction of young Bourbon, finishing with a nice, warm flush. The Hop Rising ($4.99 12 oz), on the other hand, is simply dangerous in its delicious completeness. Totally well-balanced and cunningly strong, it is an entirely lovable beer. It’s also sneakily strong—it has unexpectedly wrecked my (metaphorical) car at least once.
Squatters has fine food, for the average person. But, though distinctly above average, it is not for the foodie. The only things on the menu I have tried so far that have special resonance are the Ahi Spring Roll Salad ($13.99) and the Onion Rings (Appetizer Sampler $10.99 or a $1.00 upgrade with a sandwich) with the house-made Onion Ring Sauce.
The Ahi Spring Roll Salad is a refreshing, light and delightful collection of flavors. A soy, ginger vinaigrette dresses a bowl of arugula and some shredded cabbage. Like a campfire on top are sticks of rice-clothed, flash-fried ahi tuna. Served with a side of wasabi aioli and pickled ginger, it is a dreamily delicious alternative to sushi.
The Onion Rings are a well-chosen product, small enough to keep a crisp carapace in working order while you mannishly smear them with sauce, but big enough to fill your mouth with “Who needs the rest of this meal?” pleasure. And the sauce, a custom-made, sweet-and-savory combo of flavors, both easy and interesting––I’ll take a bottle to go.
If food, hubbub and society are what you need right this 10 seconds, then Squatters is happening all day long. The beer is some of the best in town, and, if you stick to the basics, the food is great, too. Better yet, it is a good thing to do, in the consumer choice sense of the phrase, for you and for your neighbor.