Hungry? Don’t count on grabbing a quick bite

Times Staff Writer

In the days since the Sundance Film Festival kicked-off here Thursday, Park City has experienced its yearly population boom. And with the arrival of America’s top-flight independent film extravaganza comes an inevitable decline in the quality of life.

The roads around this former mining enclave are gridlocked with traffic and will remain so through the festival’s end on Sunday night.

After dark, hordes of club-goers clog the town’s central artery, Main Street -- never mind the plunging single-digit temperatures. Park City’s narrow sidewalks can reach Hong Kong levels of pedestrian traffic as Hollywood power brokers navigate the slushy lanes alongside gawky teens, proselytizing Mormon elders and a smattering of drag queens (as well as the obligatory indie filmmakers and actors).

But in what may be the most immediate indication that the festival has returned, getting a decent meal in Park City -- or to be specific, the right kind of meal -- has become painfully difficult to engineer.

Thanks to an invading army of producers and “talent,” journalists and publicists, ingenues and entourages -- all of whom need a place to break bread, make deals and talk film -- most of the town’s marquee restaurants were block booked as far back as October.


Sundance supremo Robert Redford’s restaurant Zoom, to name just one, has been rented out by film and production companies including the Discovery Channel and Participant Productions every night until the festival’s end.

And although the town boasts more than 100 restaurants, eating off piste (that is, anywhere where entrees cost less than $27 or any eatery not situated on Main Street) is to hazard the scorn of professional peers.

Case in point: talent manager Gina Rugolo made dinner reservations for one of her clients at Park City’s Southwestern fusion hotspot Chimayo in early December. But even booking that far in advance was cutting it perilously close by Sundance standards.

“Eating meals here is just incredibly frustrating,” said Rugolo. “Everywhere you go is totally crowded, everything is booked up. If you’re an individual who just wants to stop in for dinner, you better hope somebody cancels.”

According to Debbie Axtell, co-owner of Cafe Terigo on Main Street, that happens more than most people think. “It’s not impossible to make last-minute dinner reservations,” she said. “They call up and book for 10. Then six show up.”

She added: “To make a reservation, we take their credit card number, and it costs them to cancel last minute. But they do anyway; they say, ‘Just charge the card.’ ”

Moreover, caught in the heady 10-day swirl of seeing movies, attending panels, schmoozing, making deals, gawking at celebrities and visiting swag suites, who has time to eat anyway?

Hungry attendees who risk showing up at Park City’s eight or so power dining rooms without reservations can expect to wait as long as two hours, three meals a day.

Those fortunate souls who manage to snag a last-minute table courtesy of connections or cancellations are often faced with steep (by Utah standards) prix fixe meals -- $75 per person seems to be the going rate at most places, not including beverages, dessert or gratuity -- which has turned stopping in for a quick bite into an expensive, time-consuming undertaking.

Cynthia Swartz, a publicist working with the two films in competition, recalled a typically traumatic Sundance eating experience.

Finding all the popular restaurants on Park City’s main drag packed to capacity and rushing to get a meal in before a 10 p.m. screening, she and her husband drove from restaurant to restaurant for nearly two hours before finding a place that could seat them. Their supper: Slices of greasy pizza eaten standing next to a garbage can until a table opened up.

Her advice to the Sundance uninitiated: If you make it inside one of the festival’s numerous parties, load up on hors d’oeuvres.