There’s a new restaurant in Northern Arizona where guests dine more than 20 stories underground. The Caverns Grotto is deep within Grand Canyon Caverns near Peach Springs. As part of our ongoing series “Eats and Beats: Stories about food and music” KNAU’s Justin Regan has this subterranean report.
John McEnulty, co-owner of Grand Canyon Caverns, takes me to my table for one.
"We’re in the elevator and we’re going down 210 feet. It took two years of dynamiting and two more years to rig the elevator," says McEnulty.
When the elevator door opens the first thing you notice is the silence, except for a little Sinatra playing in the background. It’s a very active silence.
"Because the cave literally absorbs all sound. This is air coming in from the sidewall of the Grand Canyon through 43 miles of limestone filtering and the absolute silence," says McEnulty.
It’s the largest dry caverns In the country with miles of tunnels and a main chamber the size of a football field. It was crafted by an ancient ocean. Much later, there were unsuccessful plans to mine it. And at one point it was a fully stocked cold war fallout shelter. Now it’s McEnulty’s restaurant.
"It’s kind of a combination of French bistro meets mine and people are enchanted by it," says McEnulty.
He was inspired by the Pirates of the Caribbean restaurant at Disneyland. But instead of an indoor moonlit bayou, the Caverns Grotto is real. Veins of quartz and crystal run across the ceiling with a view that opens up into the main chamber. It’s quaint. There’s only room for a handful of people to enjoy lunch or dinner.
"We like to do everything here as if it’s 1958 to 1964 including the food. Everything is made from scratch. With the very best ingredients. It really reminds you of going to Grand mom’s house," says McEnulty.
I order a pulled pork sandwich and steak fries. Getting it to my table before it gets cold is quite a process. Special buckets are used to lower the food down from the kitchen. They look a lot like mining pails. Nicole Vawter explains.
"And how it works is we get your order up top and we have a silver pail we pack everything into, bring it down to the grotto and then we have a pulley system, like a dummy waiter, that we hook it to. Which your waiter will pull up once we ding the bell for you," says Vawter.
My food arrives. I can eat with my hands, of course, it’s a sandwich, but I can’t touch anything around me. The natural architecture is extremely sensitive to human contact. Lawrence Lee is the head tour guide at Grand Canyon Caverns.
"The formations are millions of years old. Any bare hand touch to those formations will leave dirty stains from the oils and salts from your hands," says Lee.
To minimize this, the restaurant is built on a platform on top of the rock formations. It’s sort of like a tree house. The kitchen and bathrooms are above ground for the same reason.
"If we were to cook down there the oils from the fryers would put oil stains on the formations and the walls of the caverns," says Lee.
For Lee, running a restaurant underground isn’t easy, but the scenery alone is worth it.