Popular Rio Grande Cafe has left a historic Salt Lake City train depot. See where it now calls home.

The Mexican restaurant is serving meals at the former Porcupine Pub and Grille near the University of Utah.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City's popular Rio Grande Cafe, which has been closed since March due to the pandemic and the earthquake, has moved to its new location near the University of Utah on 1300 East, Dec. 29, 2020.

Editor’s noteThis story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting important local journalism.

Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande Cafe has left a historic downtown train station — and its namesake — for a new home near the University of Utah.

Now, instead of inside a landmark depot, the nearly 40-year-old eatery has set up at a restored fire station at 258 S. 1300 East. The Porcupine Pub and Grille, which had been operating in that spot for about five years, closed last month to make way for a sister restaurant.

Diners might find it unimaginable that the Rio Grande and its menu of tacos, enchiladas and other Mexican fare could exist anywhere other than the depot. And Byron Lovell and Bryan O’Meara, owners of Canyon Culinary Inc., likely would agree.

[Subscribe to our weekly Utah Eats newsletter]

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rio Grande Cafe's strawberry frozen margarita. Salt Lake City's popular Rio Grande Cafe, which has been closed since March due to the pandemic and the earthquake, has moved to its new location near the University of Utah on 1300 East.

But damage to the century-old building during March’s magnitude 5.7 earthquake forced the move, said Kelly Schaefer, Canyon Culinary’s marketing director. In addition to the Rio Grande, the group also owns Porcupine Pub and Grille in Cottonwood Heights, The Dodo in Sugar House and Bohemian Brewery in Midvale.

While there was some structural damage to the depot, it was the plaster — containing lead paint — that fell from the interior walls that was most concerning, said Josh Loftin spokesman for the Department of Heritage and Arts, whose offices are located in the building.

The dust traveled throughout the depot, he said, and into the shared ventilation system with the cafe.

Even before the quake, the Salt Lake Chamber and Downtown Alliance were seeking money from the Legislature to study the building’s seismic status and renovation possibilities for use as a possible year-round public market.

But there is no timeline set for the study or when safety concerns might be addressed.

“The Rio Grande Cafe has been an institution, so it’s sad to see it leave the building,” Loftin said. “But there are a lot of unknowns about what is going to happen with the building.”

The uncertainty pushed the Rio Grande owners into action, said Schaefer. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t even think about moving the restaurant somewhere else.”

In addition, Porcupine Pub’s university location had been struggling during the coronavirus pandemic. Most of its patrons had been students, faculty, staff and sports fans — who were no longer heading to campus in nearly the same numbers for classes and events because of COVID-19.

Once the owners decided to make the move, it happened quickly. In less than a month, Porcupine was out and the Rio Grande Cafe was in.

It marks a new chapter for the cafe, which opened in 1981 and operated successfully until about four years ago. That’s when the population — and the crime — near The Road Home homeless shelter down the street exploded, keeping away many customers.

In 2017, founder Pete Henderson sold it to Lovell and O’Meara, who believed those challenges would soon improve with the shelter’s closure.

Schaefer said while the location has changed, the Rio Grande Cafe’s menu has not.

The interior also will have touches of the former building. “We brought as much as we could from downtown,” he said, including the iconic “taco lady.”

The classic neon cafe signs are being restored, so is the model train that chugged around the restaurant. The jukebox also is getting a makeover and soon will brings its music to the new location.

“We went from a historic train station to a historic fire station,” Schaefer said. “They’re both nostalgic and in some weird way it all works.”

Return to Story