Thursday, April 29, 2010

Structural History at the Canyon

Before leaving the Grand Canyon, we wanted to stop by some of the famous structures.

The first was the Hopi House, opened in 1905. Designed by Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, who was obsessive about materials and workmanship; once she made workers dismantle a wall to replace a single stone. Hopi House sells a variety of Native American arts and crafts--anything from jewelry, rugs, and pottery to books and postcards.

The El Tovar Hotel was built in 1905 on a dizzying perch just 20 feet from the edge of the Grand Canyon. Built by the Santa Fe Railroad to promote their transportation services, the Hotel was named after Spanish explorer Pedro de Tovar who led a 1540 expedition to this area. Ironically, Pedro de Tovar never actually saw the Grand Canyon.

Upon its completion, the El Tovar was one of the finest and grandest hotels in the West.

As the story goes, Paul McCartney stayed at the El Tovar Hotel in 2001, registering under a company name. One evening he began playing the piano on the mezzanine until some of the other guests, unaware the former Beatle was staying at the Hotel, complained to the front desk about the noise. Instructed not to reveal that McCartney was staying at the El Tovar, the staff had to ask that the famous musician stop playing.

The plan had been to have lunch at the famous El Tovar Lodge on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and then spend some time photographing the lodge’s famous lobby. But circumstances intervened. First, I read a scathing review of the restaurant—its food, its service, and its high prices. So the backup was to eat at the Bright Angel Lodge, just a quarter of a mile up the rim walk from El Tovar.


Bright Angel Lodge (front porch shown on the right), designed in 1935, has a natural, rustic character and is a Registered National Historic Landmark. Designed by famed architect Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, it has always been a popular place to stay and the center of South Rim activity.

Located just a few feet from the Canyon rim, Bright Angel Lodge is the check-in point for the world famous Grand Canyon Mule Rides. (Lobby shown in the photos above and below.)

The lodge offers three eating options: the Bright Angel Lodge restaurant is family-friendly and features Southwest-inspired meals; the Arizona Room is western-inspired and offers steaks, poultry, and seafood; and the Bright Angel Fountain is a fast food take-out place that offers hot dogs, sandwiches, ice cream beverages and snacks. We chose the Bright Angel Lodge Restaurant.

The restaurant was close to eighty percent full when we arrived just before 2:00 p.m., and we were seated in a small side dining room with nary a view of the canyon. A review of the menu confirmed that this is a corporate-run (Xanterra) dining facility that tries to be all things to all people. There was a long list of standard appetizers, salads, wraps, special sandwiches, and burgers. Since the lodge serves a clientele that includes all ages and all nationalities, you can’t really blame them for playing it safe.

From the list of hamburgers, Chuck chose the Battleship Burger, which was a half pound Angus burger with what the menu called wrangler’s chili, cheddar cheese, and guacamole. The sandwich was topped with two onion rings and was served on a toasted Kaiser roll. For his side (from the choice of cole slaw, fries, or onion rings), he opted for the fries. His sandwich illustrated that the kitchen has never heard that “less is more.” There was way too much chili which was seasoned with way too much chili seasoning. There was no way you were going to taste the hamburger under that lava flow of chili. The fries were decent--even if they came into the kitchen frozen.

I wasn’t really inspired by anything on the menu, but finally settled on (or settled for) what was called A Dip in the River, which was basically a French dip with the addition of sautéed mushrooms and onions and then topped with melted Swiss cheese. Take a good look at the photo. Do you see how neatly stacked the slices of admittedly thin sliced beef resemble a deck of cards? I could have picked up the stack and dealt the slices around the table. And the au jus would have been salty with half the salt. My accompanying slaw was decent, but not shredded as finely as I would have liked.

I haven’t had much good to say about our Grand Canyon lunch and can’t rate it any higher than 2.5 Addies.

And that is being generous.

On our walk back to the train depot, we came across this large fly, which offered us a momentary diversion from the walk.

As the train left the South Rim of the Grand Canyon for the 65-mile return trip to Williams (AZ), we caught this view of one of the San Francisco Peaks, which collectively represent six summits that circle the caldera of a now quiet volcano. The Peaks (the tallest of which is 12,633 feet) were named in honor of St. Francis of Assisi by the Spanish Friars that settled the area in the 1620's.

It was a short, but memorable, afternoon at the Grand Canyon.