Mormon capital is slowly starting to shed its conservative image
Center of the Mormon universe. Conservative living. Wacky alcohol laws. A buzz saw on your fun, right?
Not so fast.
“It’s a conservative place, but less conservative if you want it to be,” says Sarah Roderick, 35, a Mormon stockbroker and mother of three.
“I don’t drink – I used to – but I can go to dinner with people who do, and everyone has a good time.”
You think Salt Lake’s party boys disagree? They don’t. Especially not since the state dumped a law last year requiring “membership” to drink in a bar – usually $4 for a temporary license, $20 for an annual.
“You have no idea how big a deal it was when we got rid of that,” says Jeff Buist, 34, as we sipped beer at Red Rock Brewing Co. (yes, they even make beer in Salt Lake City). “Bar-hopping is in vogue now.”
I didn’t quite hop bars, but on a Friday night I did hit two microbreweries where the healthy mountain youth celebrated the end of their work week.
By the end of the evening I was scoffing at my father’s oft-told story of 30 years ago, when my mother’s sleeveless arms generated ghastly looks on Salt Lake’s streets.
Today’s Salt Lake City is home to a growing counterculture (spurred no doubt by being home to the state’s largest university), an ever-expanding food scene and, until recently, Rocky Anderson, a pro-gay, pro-affirmative action, anti-tobacco mayor who bashed the state’s liquor laws every chance he had.
The real draw of this place, however, remains that, at heart, it is a crisp mountain town. The air is clean, and the people unhurried as they move below the majestic peaks to both the east and west (the eastern Wasatch Range are “the big ones” when locals give directions). Think Denver, but sleepier.
The intersections people rave about – Third and Third, Ninth and Ninth – are still inching their way toward major-league status, but they have their moments.
Pago, at Ninth and Ninth, boasts rare Spanish wines and a local-centric menu that included memorably succulent lamb ravioli the night I showed up.
Like many Western towns, Salt Lake City isn’t always so friendly to foot traffic, but these neighborhoods get it right amid the restaurants, the coffee shops and independent movie theaters.
Many say the city’s evolution sped up when it hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics. It was forced to literally open itself to a world of people, ideas and cultures.
“More of everything came in,” says Roderick, the Mormon stockbroker. “More people, more mix, more religions, different points of view. It was good for everyone.”
It also made it clear that the liquor laws hampered the state’s ability to become a serious tourist destination. Banishing those laws can only help win over those – and there are plenty of them – who see Salt Lake City as a bump in the road on the way to the slopes.
Let an expert explain the old days:
“You could sit at the bar with a beer and not order food,” Josh West, a Red Rock bartender, told me. “And you could sit in the dining room and drink wine or a cocktail, but you had to order food. But you couldn’t order a beer without food.
“You couldn’t – and still can’t – have two cocktails in front of you at once. But you can have two beers or a beer and a glass of wine. Needless to say, trying to explain it to intoxicated people from out of town was like pulling teeth.”
Strange wrinkles endure. Wine pours can’t exceed 5 ounces. Bottled beer can be high in alcohol, but beer on tap still can’t exceed a measly 4 percent.
That makes Utah brewers the rare breed that takes pride in crafting tasty low-alcohol beer; my favorite was Desert Edge’s Utah Pale Ale.
But these hurdles don’t stop new bars from opening, like the Beerhive, where the drinkers filled almost every stool at 6 p.m. on a Saturday.
They also don’t stop people like Salt Lake City native Jim Lund, 62, from drinking a Moab Scorpion Ale on that early Saturday evening.
“When I was a kid, this was a tough place to live, in part because I’m not a Mormon,” said Lund, a supermarket manager.
“It used to feel like we were in a time warp. But there’s been an influx of people the last few years, and it has made Salt Lake City a lot more diverse.”