Aside from an NBA franchise, Salt Lake City and New Orleans don’t appear to have a lot in common — particularly when it comes to eating and drinking. Traditionally it’s the difference between beignets, jazz and Hurricane cocktails and fasting, the Tabernacle Choir and Postum.
Salt Lake City is becoming more culinarily adventurous than it used to be — and John Belvin, co-founder and chef of Neutral Ground Lounge, aims to loosen the city up a little bit more with his new NOLA-inspired restaurant and lounge.
In New Orleans, the term “neutral ground” refers to any city median. The usage was first documented, by The Daily Picayune in 1837, in reference to a median on Canal Street — the demarcation line between the city’s Anglo and French Creole districts.
Today, these little strips have become a commons for barbecuing, watching parades and hanging out. It’s that open, joyful vibe that Belvin hopes to bring to his new establishment.
Belvin landed in Utah last November through one of his private sports clients, who wanted to open a restaurant here. Before moving to Utah, he lived in San Antonio and New Orleans, working as a restaurant consultant and traveling private chef, including cooking for vacationing families and for bachelorette parties. “You name it, I’ve probably done it,” he said.
While in college, where he was studying computer science, Belvin started cooking for himself. He found he enjoyed it so much, “[I] made it my side hustle,” he said.
“I became known as the guy by the grill,” Belvin said. “I would charge people 10 or 15 bucks, bring me a meal or whatever you want. And then I went from there to selling food out of my apartment, and I quickly realized that I wanted to go to culinary school. At 20 years old, I dropped out, and a friend and I started a food truck. And I never looked back.”
Belvin has been in the kitchen since landing in Salt Lake City, with his menu available for online ordering and takeout, construction permitting. The physical restaurant and lounge — at 2110 W. North Temple, in an area surrounded by airport-adjacent hotels — will open around April 20, he said.
“When you walk in, there will be a restaurant, and then there’s going to be a bar, where we’ll have couches and customized booths,” Belvin said. “Everyone will still be able to order food on both sides. But people who just want to come in here and have a drink can do that.”
With the food, he said, “I wanted to bring a different flavor — a Southern flavor” that would bring New Orleans to Salt Lake in a way that Utahns could connect with.
NOLA cuisine, he said, is “very butter-heavy. We use a lot of butter, a lot of heavy cream. A lot of people don’t know this, but your Creole and Cajun both use East African and Italian spices. It’s just full of flavor. A lot of our stuff takes time to cook, and there’s just a lot of love that goes into our food.”
The menu features such traditional New Orleans dishes as red beans and rice, gumbo and jambalaya, as well as Belvin’s take on traditional foods like fried green tomatoes — his version is served with tomato jam and smoked remoulade sauce. His biggest seller, he said, is the Cajun pasta, which features blackened shrimp, lump blue crab, Cajun chicken and smoked sausage.
“Everyone loves pasta,” Belvin said, “but they’re getting a flavor they’ve never had in Utah, and I think that’s why I can’t keep it in stock right now.”
The menu will shift a touch once Neutral Ground’s sit-down location opens to the public, Belvin said. And once it opens, he aims to create an experience that, like the food, people can’t get anywhere else in Salt Lake City.
Once fully open, he said, “we’ll be doing just strictly Sunday brunches. But it’s going to be very different. It’s going to be New Orleans style. We may have a DJ there, just some good music.”
The design of the building, he said, also will be unique to Utah. “When you walk in, it’s going to look like New Orleans — a lot of color, a lot of art. It’s going to be like you’re walking into New Orleans in Salt Lake.”
The goal of Neutral Ground Lounge, he said, is “to create a space where people can have fun at any time, and eat some good food.”
Online ordering for Neutral Ground Lounge is available Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., through Uber Eats, DoorDash or ToastTab. Go to the restaurant’s Instagram account, @neutralgroundslc, to watch the restaurant’s progress toward its physical opening.
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