By Jennifer Bain, Toronto Star — Utah isn’t dry. That surprises people who know precious little about this state other than the fact the Mormon members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who make up at least half the population can’t drink. Booze has been sold here since 1935, two years after the end of Prohibition.
OK, so you can’t gamble or buy lottery tickets in this conservative state either, but in return Utah offers an embarrassment of ski hills and national parks in a family-friendly playground, and a surprisingly progressive capital full of left-leaning delights, namely thriving craft beer, food, music and arts scenes.
Make your first stop in downtown Salt Lake City at Squatters pub and order a Polygamy Porter. “Why have just one” is the award-winning beer’s tagline, and the black T-shirt goes even further with the slogans “I’ve tried polygamy” on the front and “bring some home to the wives” on the back.
“I think you can be pretty cheeky here,” says brewmaster Jason Stock, a former Mormon missionary, “and I think there is a line.” He will admit Salt Lake’s “very thriving craft-beer scene” (with more than a dozen breweries) has to work around some quirky liquor laws.
Squatters has a club licence that means people who are at least 21 can drink without eating, but anyone younger than that must be with an adult and sit at a table instead of the bar. At restaurants, however, you can’t drink without ordering food and you can’t pour alcohol within view of patrons. Utahns have coined the term “Zion curtain” for the barrier (wall, curtain or separate room) that drinks must be poured or mixed behind.
It makes for fascinating small talk, no matter what you drink or don’t drink.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Salt Lake City for the monthly “Old Jews Telling Jokes Night” at Feldman’s Deli, secure yourself a ticket for the fixed-price menu and stand up to tell a joke to get $5 off your meal. Otherwise, come here if you crave the best deli food west of New Jersey.
Mike Feldman specializes in Sloppy Joe double-decker sandwiches, a half-pound of corned beef, pastrami and coleslaw with homemade Thousand Island dressing on Jewish rye. He says a local politician took the Havana-born sandwich to Maplewood, N.J., where it was reinvented and became a staple in Jewish delis.
The four-year-old, kosher-style deli is at the crossroads of four neighbourhoods “filled with people who moved to Utah from somewhere else” and aren’t necessarily Jewish but who know deli. Insider tip: Feldman’s wife comes from a long line of Jewish bakers (and knows the back-breaking hours) and so Feldman’s makes just 30 boiled and baked bagels a day.
For another authentic local food experience, I lined up in the rain in December for the signature mole dishes at Red Iguana (“killer Mexican food that’s worth the wait”). The outdoor check-in counter, benches and free hot cider are part of the scene at this 31-year-old hot spot created by Ramon and Maria Cardenas. (Insider tip: There’s a food-court version called Taste of Red Iguana downtown in City Creek Center).
Two more food spots of note: Pop into Eva’s Bakery Boulangerie for kouign-amann (a Breton cake), and Pago for farm-to-table fare, such as the pork chop served on white grits with braised kale.
Speaking of City Creek Center, head here at 10 a.m. on a Saturday and help feed the cutthroat trout (Utah’s state fish) that live in the re-creation of a creek that once meandered through the city. The mall has a scenic pedestrian skybridge, retractable roof, two waterfalls and musically choreographed shows at fountains designed by the creators of the Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas. Ask for the “architectural tour” pamphlet.
While wandering the walkable downtown admiring the new Eccles Theater, Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center or Capitol Theatre, one quirk that stands out is that the city leaves a container of neon orange flags at each end of certain crosswalks so pedestrians can wave them while crossing the street to be more visible and less likely to be hit.
Salt Lake’s top tourist attraction, you won’t be surprised to learn, is Temple Square, a 35-acre complex owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Mormons will pick you up at the airport for a quick tour on a stopover, or you can take a free guided tour (in 30 languages, no less). The iconic Salt Lake Temple is off limits, though.
I delved into my family tree at the world’s largest genealogy library, and quizzed my tour guides about the religion’s ban on coffee and tea, various names (Mormon, LDS and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) and global missionary work. I’m still mulling over their questions, such as, “how are you able to recognize truth when you see it?” and “how do you find your sense of strength?”
I also caught the famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s Christmas Concert with tenor Rolando Villazon at the church’s Conference Center. You can watch Sunday broadcasts and other recitals and rehearsals.
Salt Lake City got its name from the state’s famous salt-water lake in the middle of the desert and I managed a quick trip out of town to dip my finger in Great Salt Lake and see the bison at Antelope Island State Park. It was too cold to see if you really can float better in this unusual water with extra-high salinity and where only algae, brine shrimp and brine fly larvae can survive.
I’ll be back to Utah, heading further west to the Bonneville Salt Flats to catch noisy land speed events at the “Bonneville Speedway,” or be mesmerized by the flats’ “otherwordly silence.” Utah, you see, is just fine with contradictions.
Jennifer Bain was hosted by the Utah Office of Tourism and its partners, none of which reviewed or approved this story
When you go
Get there: I flew Delta (delta.com) from Toronto to Salt Lake City.
Get around: You can get from the airport to downtown Salt Lake City by public transit on the TRAX/light rail for $2.50 (U.S.) Car rentals and taxis are other options.
Souvenir shop: The Salt Lake Visitors Center in the Salt Palace Convention Center (90 South West Temple) has brochures and a gift shop.
Save money: The Visit Salt Lake Connect Pass offers one, two, three and 365-day passes that help you save 50 to 80 per cent on regular admission prices at more than a dozen spots. I explored the Natural History Museum of Utah, The Leonardo (a science/arts space) and Tracy Aviary. Passes start at $32 for adults and $26 for kids ages 3 to 12.
Read up: Salt Lake City WeeklySalt Lake City Weekly (cityweekly.net) will tell you where to go, what to do and what to hear at places like the State Room (thestateroom.com) and the Depot (depotslc.com).
Stay: I stayed at the Montage Deer Valley in Park City and at the Peery Hotel in downtown Salt Lake City .