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It's (Zion) 'curtains' for restaurant booze barriers

Published: 05/10/2009
Customers sitting at the bar at Faustina, an upscale downtown restaurant, are separated from servers by a glass wall that is similar to structures at eateries throughout the state.

Now the so-called "Zion curtains" are coming down, and servers will be able to set drinks directly in front of customers instead of having to come from behind the bar to hand over an order.

Starting Tuesday, the restaurant portion of the state's sweeping changes to liquor regulation becomes law. Utah's version of bars, private clubs, have to wait until July 1 to eliminate their membership requirements, however.

Utah restaurateurs affected by the new law, like Faustina manager Catherine Lauderback, are eager to remove the barriers.

"Absolutely. We're going to take it down, and we won't have to walk around to serve our customers," Lauderback said.

Already, she is thinking about ways to attract new bar customers once the glass is gone.

"Maybe we'll promote the bar a little more," Lauderback said, "get a flat-screen TV so businessmen can watch their sports and have their cocktails" along with their meals. State restaurant liquor licensees have to sell food to customers, even at their bars. Only in private clubs can customers choose just to drink.

Lauderback said Faustina will have little trouble complying with a new ban on anyone under 21 years old from a restaurant bar area unless drink preparations and storage are blocked from view.

"We don't have that many kids," she said. "It's an adult-friendly restaurant."

Chris Patterson, the owner of Christopher's Seafood and Steak House downtown, said he already keeps underage customers out of his restaurant's bar area.

Patterson said his bar's "Zion curtain" will stay put.

"It cost me a lot of money to build that partition. I'm not going to take it out now," he said.

But Patterson said he's frustrated he had to install it at all.

"I realized how ludicrous the law was, and how insulting it was to guests," he said. "It's almost going into what you see on TV, the place where people are talking to a prisoner over the phone behind glass."

The barriers came about as a way to block customers from drink preparations. Under the new law, future restaurant bars will have to put up opaque structures that keep customers from seeing drinks poured or mixed.

Thanks to a comprise to get the controversial lifting of private club membership requirements through the Legislature, existing restaurants with bars, or those under construction or with building permits as of Tuesday, are exempt - but they can't allow underage customers in the bar areas. It was Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. who sought the change in the private club law, to make the state more tourist-friendly. A group including lawmakers as well representatives of the industry, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints worked out the compromise.

"We're trying to keep kids out of bars. That's the whole goal," said Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, the new law's sponsor. "If you blur the line so the bar and restaurant are the same thing, then you haven't achieved the policy goal of trying to control underage drinking."

Valentine included an incentive in the new law to help entice existing restaurants with bars to put up the new, opaque barriers around their dispensing and storage areas. Those that remodel can claim up to $30,000 of their costs as a credit toward liquor purchases from the state.

So far, though, no one has taken advantage of the offer.

"You never know with an incentive," Valentine said, adding he expects some restaurants will decide to do the remodeling before the offer runs out.

"It's sort of a long-term approach," he said, noting that the grandfathered restaurant bars won't be around forever. "It took us 40 years to get here."

Restaurants have until Dec. 31, 2011, to complete the remodeling necessary to qualify for the incentive, said Neil Cohen, Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control compliance specialist.

Cohen predicted that some existing restaurants with bars could come to the conclusion it's better for their bottom line to remodel so drinks are prepared out of sight.

"They might decide it's a pain in the butt kicking out all these minors and their business is suffering," Cohen said. "They have some time."

But as of last week, a half-dozen applications for new restaurants with bars had been submitted to the state to meet the Tuesday deadline to operate under the current law, Cohen said.

Utah Restaurant Association head Melva Sine isn't surprised there's no interest in erecting new barriers to shield customers from alcohol.

"It's a legally sold product," Sine said, "and even though they don't go out of their way to promote the product, they don't go out of their way to hide it, either."