Salt Lake City Loosens Up; Liquor Laws Included

Article excerpt

SALT LAKE CITY -- You already know about this place, so there's not much to say, really. Center of the Mormon universe. Conservative living. Wacky alcohol laws. A buzz saw on your fun.

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 after 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. While I was chatting with some of those youth, a guy asked with a grin whether I wanted to smoke with him and his buddies. And he didn't mean cigarettes. So, there's Salt Lake City 2010 for you.

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 counter-culture (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 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 -- still are 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. As in 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. The city 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 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. …