Unusual landscapes of alpine mountains and high desert span out in all directions from Cedar City in the far reaches of southeastern Utah. The town is a modest cluster of budget hotels and businesses, but thanks to its downtown walking district and restaurants serving delicious food, Cedar City is far more than just a pit stop.
Cedar City still feels a little like an old frontier town, functioning primarily as a refueling station for weary travelers to rest in between national forests and parks. While the surrounding nature will always be the main attraction, this university town is a refreshing bastion of civilization, including more gourmet eateries and charming shops than you might expect from a town of 30,000.
Stranded between barren desert and lonely mountaintops with little agriculture to speak of, it seems Cedar City wouldn’t have much to offer in the way of fresh food, but in fact, the area has cultivated a surprisingly palatable food scene, focused primarily around pizza from the West Coast, barbecue from the East, and Mexican food from the South.
Modern décor, somehow both industrial and homey, greets guests at Centro Woodfired Pizzeria (50 W Center St), just off Cedar City’s main drag. The pizza is just as comforting yet unfamiliar as the décor, with thin perfectly crisped crust and a unique selection of gourmet Italian toppings from sopressata salami to sliced red grapes. Given the dearth of bars in Cedar City, Centro is also one of the town’s best places to order a few drinks and savor the night.
Every Rocky Mountain town should have one—a Mexican joint that’s basic but nonetheless delicious and decadent. Tacos El Jefe (755 S Main St) is Cedar City’s crowning achievement in cheap south-of-the-border specialties, serving street tacos and hulking burritos loaded with house-made salsa and bright yellow cheddar cheese. Seemingly imported straight from the West Coast, the guac-heavy carne asada fries are a must here.
Chef Alfredo’s Ristorante Italiano (2313 W 400th N #1) offers a classic Italian dining experience in Cedar City’s western quarter, complete with candlesticks, white table linens and the old-world specialties we all know and love. The attentive service and complimentary bread, with grilled onions as well as the standard olive oil and balsamic, get your meal started off right, and it’s hard to go wrong with anything from their extensive menu—though anything steak or seafood-centric is sure to impress.
Great barbeque isn’t always easy to find this side of the Rockies, but you know Sonny Boy’s BBQ (126 N Main St) is doing it right as soon as you spot the intimidating black smoker spewing delicious-smelling smoke near the entrance. The small regional chain is renowned for their pulled pork and beef brisket, both smoked more than 12 hours, as well as their St. Louis style ribs. But the biggest surprises at Sonny’s come from the meatless side of the menu, specifically the fried cauliflower and coleslaw.
The Pizza Cart (1190 S Sage Dr) was once an outdoor food stand, but they’ve transitioned to brick-and-mortar without sacrificing their cheap prices on distinctly themed pizzas like the New York garlic or gyro pies for under ten dollars. The baby blue wood oven makes the cheese brown and the crust bubbly: so irresistible you might want to eat a whole pizza yourself instead of sharing one between two people.
Cedar City wouldn’t be your first choice of town for finding world-class sushi, but somehow Ninja Japanese Steakhouse (1180 Sage Dr, Ste. A) manages to whip up rolls even more flavorful and fresh than most places on the Pacific coast some 500 miles to the west. Their sushi-centric happy hour deals are too good not to take advantage of, particularly when every specialty roll seems to have its own delicious gimmick, including the crispy tabiko topping their evil roll or the meticulous design of their lobster tail.
Perhaps Cedar City’s biggest claim to fame, aside from its close proximity to so many national parks, are its festivals. The modest town comes to life in a big way throughout the year thanks to a wide array of unique events that helped earn it the nicknamed Festival City USA. If you’re visiting during the warmer seasons, you’re all but guaranteed to run into some sort of festival activity.
Each festival is unique but inclusive enough to satisfy almost any taste. Among the annual standouts is the Groovefest American Music Festival in June, where local and national touring acts perform at venues throughout downtown Cedar City. The Neil Simon Festival and especially the five-month-long Utah Shakespeare Festival, the city’s most famous annual event, are dreams come true for theater lovers. Recreations of Simon’s screwball comedies and Shakespeare’s epic tragedies abound in theaters and parks throughout the city.
Live bands and food stands serve the auto enthusiasts who turn out for the July Jamboree car show. Outdoorsmen and nature photographers will love the more low-key Wildflower Festival at the nearby Cedar Breaks National Monument, when daily events and ranger-guided walks help visitors enjoy the colorful flowers that burst to vibrant life every July.
Cedar City serves as a pit stop to most travelers on their way to exploring the otherworldly rock formations that litter the region. Trying to see them all, by foot or by car, can prove overwhelming, which is why most tourists will need an extra boost in between national parks. Thankfully, there are plenty of great cups of coffee around Cedar City to sustain hikers and road-trippers on their way to the next natural wonder.
Little more than a roadside stand and a few patio chairs, The French Spot (5 N Main St) seems modest even by the standards of a French café. But this food stand doesn’t need an indoor location to craft delicious lattes and photogenic pastries from seasonal fresh fruit. Their coffee is fresh and the baked goods are so impossibly, perfectly flaky. But many of the highlights here turn out to be the savory dishes, particularly their Ratatouille pasta.
In contrast, the focus is almost solely devoted to the coffee at nearby 21 Eleven (2111 N Main St), where every cup comes from single-origin coffee beans roasted in-house weekly. The quality shines through no matter how simple or dressed-up your cup of coffee might be, and 100% of their profits go towards assisting humanitarian efforts at home and abroad, often in the same nations that provide their coffee beans.
The ample space and inviting atmosphere of The Grind Coffeehouse (19 N Main St) makes it a premier spot to beat the seasonal weather for a while. There’s enough room at this internet café to socialize and watch the activity along Cedar City’s main drag outside or hide away in the corner with your computer to get some work done. The menu is almost as expansive as the room itself, including iced and hot lattes as well as smoothies, sandwiches, bagels, waffles and more.
Cedar City isn’t a shopping destination, so most of its retail real estate is occupied by big name department stores rather than independent clothing boutiques. Nonetheless, there are a few shopping gems scattered throughout the city center, filled with charming wares but unfussy enough to offer bargain bin prices.
Groovacious (195 W 650 S) is a funky living room of a record shop, with everything from vintage rugs and a lazy sociable feline to make you feel at home. Of course, the main attraction here is the wide selection of new and used music lining every wall. The retro décor fits the merchandise, which ranges beyond music to include obscure finds in every medium from books and movies to incense and band t-shirts. In a state so often devoid of such hip local color catering to media junkies, Groovacious is always worth a stop.
Antiquing is all about learning how to wade through the distractions and spot the gems in overcrowded hole-in-the-wall shops. Betty’s Antiques and Collectibles (1181 S Main St) is refreshingly well-organized for an antique shop, eliminating the time you need to sift through everything to find what you’re looking for and leaving you to peruse their useful, reasonably priced collection of secondhand trinkets and homewares.
What’s a college town without a good independent bookstore? Braun Books (25 N Main St) in the center of the downtown walking district capably fills that need in Cedar City with loads of used books of nearly every genre. Their vast inventory crowds the small space a little bit, but the owner and staff are always willing to help you find what you’re looking for, or even order in a book if you have a day or two to wait.
Bulloch Drug (91 N Main St) is one of Cedar City’s most unexpected surprises, a genuine throwback to the days when a drug store was more than just a drug store—it was also a gift shop, a candy store and a soda fountain. Kids will fall in love with their extensive selection of candy and ice creams, while adults can enjoy the nostalgic 50s décor and even peruse the women’s accessory shop-within-a-shop that is the Wood ‘n Lace Place.