Behind The Zion Curtain

Originally published 6 September 2011

The Zion curtain is being redrawn in Utah and a lot of people are not happy about it. Recent changes to the liquor laws in Utah are going into effect soon and none more offensive than the Zion curtain. For those of you who live outside of Utah, the Zion curtain is a screen, barrier or opaque piece of glass that prohibits patrons from watching alcoholic drinks being made. Found in restaurants, the Zion curtain makes sure that children don’t hear the clinks of martinis being made or draft beer being poured. It separates bartender from his customers and hides him in a closet to make your drinks. According to State Senator, Michael Waddoups: “Listening to the shaking of drinks and the sights can make drinking attractive. That’s one of the reasons that restaurants should not look like a bar.” He’s afraid it will encourage underage drinking and overconsumption. Unfortunately, I hate agreeing with the uber-conservative senator from Taylorsville but the sight of a drink being made is very attractive to me.

I first discovered the Zion curtain a decade ago when I moved to Salt Lake and was a bit confused by it. I didn’t understand why there was so much separation between the customer and the bartender in restaurants like TGI Fridays or the Olive Garden. In the end, however, it didn’t matter: I still got my mug of beer or glass of wine. It seemed like a lot hoops to jump through in order to get a drink but providing I got what I wanted at the end of the parlor game I played with the restaurant, I didn’t care. Some people did and they petitioned to have it removed a couple of years ago. It didn’t make a lick of difference to me. Whether my gin and tonic was made in front of me or in a dungeon by a buck-toothed gimp, I didn’t care unless they forgot my lime wedge.

Utah is different and that’s a good thing. It’s not supposed to be New Orleans or Las Vegas. Hell, it’s not even supposed to be Cheyenne or Denver. There is a unique history and charm to this place and what positives it offers to its citizens and visitors isn’t detracted by having to have your cocktails made behind a screen. I think people should be more outraged on how bad the food is at a Chili’s than not being able to watch their margarita being made. The best restaurants in Salt Lake don’t do table side bartending and the fact that there isn’t traditional bar service at most restaurants shouldn’t cause boycotts from eating out. To those opening restaurants in Utah and don’t think the rules apply to them, give me a call sometime and I’ll tell you about the three years I ran The Woodshed. They take booze service in Utah serious even if it feels like a kangaroo wrote the laws.

There are about four inches of rules and regulations determing liquor law in the State of Utah. I wish I could whittle away all of these laws into three: don’t serve people under 21 years of age, make sure everyone pays for all of their drinks and make sure the sale taxes are paid to the state. There. In 28 words, I just solved all of Utah’s liquor problems. Now that this is behind us, let’s move on to fixing the real problems we face in this state: employment, social services, protecting the environment and ending the NBA lockout.

The problem is that nobody can leave well enough alone. I disagree with the majority of the liquor laws in Utah as much as the next drinker (providing the next drinker likes Irish whiskey and cold, cheap yellow beer) but I knew the laws when I got into the business. Utah is different than other states in the Union because they have this pesky, loud population called Mormons that do not like hooch. Mormons are buzz-kills and they want to make sure the rest of us are miserable because some golden plates read through a peep stone said no doubles, happy hour or ladies night. In their defense, they were here first and they run the state in one form or another.  Utah is a Mormon state but not a 100% LDS providence. The will of the community should be reflected in the laws but knuckleheads like Senators Waddoups and John Valentine of Orem are way over their heads when they start making laws about liquor. If you can’t shoot whiskey, you sure-as-shit shouldn’t be making laws about it. You should have had something to drink stronger than Dimetapp when making decisions regarding alcohol sales in a state that prides itself on tourism.

All of this Zion curtain talk doesn’t impact me at Keys On Main. Our liquor license allows us to pour drinks as if, wait for it, we’re a bar. As far as I am concerned, it is these kinds of debates that make people from other states think that Utah is chockfull of radical bomb-throwing polygamist. We’re the second-coming of Carrie Nation with anti-saloon leagues popping up on every corner. It’s a shame that every time we make national news it’s because of some crack-pot liquor law or high profile kidnapping. However, if we are going to be the laughing stock of the country let us at least fight about something that would make a real impact in the state. Here are a handful of things that I would like to see changed in Utah’s liquor law and culture in my lifetime.

Full strength beer on tap. For the life of me, I can’t believe at one point in time I actually defended 3.2% beer. Sure, Utah brewers make delicious tap beer and I am not faulting their efforts but I am certain that they have brewers that can easily re-fit any brewery to make full strength beer. The real impact of not being able to serve full strength beer on tap is that there is a de facto prohibition on beers that we can sell. Because Stella Artois doesn’t make a 3.2% version of their beer, there is no way I can legal pour a draft of Stella at Keys. Most beers made throughout the world could never be poured in SLC simply because they don’t meet the arbitrary 3.2% standard. It’s a shame because a lot of beers available both in a bottle or tap have different flavors. Newcastle in a bottle tastes like sea water. Newcastle on tap tastes like heaven. It is laughed out loud funny how stupid this rule is. If you don’t think people can’t get drunk off of 3.2% draft beer, don’t visit any bar in Utah at any time. The vast majority of over-served patrons are hammered off of beer. They just push their bladder to the limit every time they hit the club.

Selling cold beer at the liquor store. They sell full strength beer in bottles and cans in Utah but you have to go to a state run liquor store to buy it. That’s fair. It’s inconvenient but at least I can still buy Pacificos and Sierra Nevadas. But here is the bitch in the bunch, they don’t sell it refrigerated. They are sold out of cases in the middle of the liquor stores at room temperature. Huh?!? What are they afraid of? That I am going to pop the top off a Labatt’s at the cash register and go driving around town looking for under-aged children to molest? The guys in the white panel vans who need liquor courage to do this don’t need cold beer. Guys like me who like to pick up a six-pack on the way to a family barbeque do.

And while we’re at it, how come they can’t sell a six-pack of Coke and an eight pound bag of ice at the liquor store? Would it kill the DABC liquor stores to sell smokes, a Penthouse and a bag of Cheetos? It’s ridiculous that you can’t buy cups or mixers at the liquor store. Its back to Mr. Panel Van: do they really think we’re making margaritas in the car for the long drive home? Those who drink and drive are going to do it anyway and making me drive to three places to get everything I need to make a proper Manhattan at home just makes me want to open one of those warm beers for the drive. If liquor stores are operated for profit, they should maximize their profits by offering secondary products that people who willingly purchase. Think of how much time I would save if I could buy a carton of Kools, a handle of vodka and a Barely Legal in one stop? Hours.

Clean up the liquor store at 200 West & 400 South.  Since we’re talking about liquor stores, how come the busiest liquor store in the State of Utah looks like something out of Berlin in 1945? By volume, this is the busiest liquor store in the state, yet I feel like I am in the movie Blade Runner any time I go on a beer run. I’d feel safer buying a bottle of Jameson from a camel trader in Beirut than going to this liquor store at night. Of course out-of-towners have a bad impression of how we sell our package liquor when they have to step over drunks, winos and panhandlers to get a bottle of merlot. As a rule of thumb, if my mother can’t go to a place unescorted without me loaning her a .38 Special then she’s not going. For the record I want to be perfectly clear on this one point: “Mama, you are not allowed to go to the 200 West & 400 South liquor store alone. We’ll go together or you’ll have to do without any Dewar’s White Label.” Sweet Pete, have you ever seen the liquor store on a Saturday night around 9:30? It makes the Gathering of the Juggalos look like an open air bible study class. Shoppers are frantic trying to get enough booze to survive till Monday. The Store is painfully under-staffed with surly cashiers and distracted cops more interested in nabbing shoplifters than protecting them on their way to their cars. It smells like wet garbage all the time and it’s filled with the worst representations of the state. They have built a couple of nice stores in town but isn’t it time we have a superstore in downtown Salt Lake that doesn’t require a shirt made from Kevlar and a can of pepper spray? I’ll buy your warm beer. I get it that you don’t sell ice. In return, can you let me buy my booze in an environment that doesn’t make me regret my purchase?

Public transportation past last call. Keys On Main is located in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City and is directly across the street from the Gallivan Plaza TRAX stop. So, those who want to avoid drinking and driving or finding a parking spot should be able to take TRAX home to the club. But when the last train leaves at midnight and the bar doesn’t close for another hour, what good does it make for taking TRAX? For every dollar that liquor sales put into Utah’s general funds, they can’t run buses and trains to at least 2am? How about those in the service industry who are dependent upon public transportation? I know trains and booze are not directly related but think how much better things would be in SLC if you could hit the clubs, party all night and get home safely without ever getting behind the wheel of a car? How much better would the roads be? Less DUIs and the cops could focus on stopping real crime in the city. What I like most about this argument is that it is a chance for the legislature to think about problems in the community in different terms. In taking a new approach to making Salt Lake more hospitable for locals and visitors, I think we could eliminate a lot of the imagine problems this state suffers from.

Too many laws, not enough thought. My ultimate suggestion is for both sides of the liquor debate to take a deep breath and count to ten. Every single year, the liquor laws in Utah are debated and changed—sometimes for the better, other times for the worse. A lot of the time, it feels like they are fighting over the rules just for the sake of fighting. They squabble over the rules the same way Bighorn sheep act during a rut. Well, enough is enough. I am calling upon a three year moratorium for any changes to the laws. Just like any good whiskey needs to age in an oak barrel before being drinkable, Utah needs to stop making ticky-tacky changes to the laws every twelve months and really determine the direction they want for booze in the state. And the same goes for the lobbyists petitioning the State Legislature to turn Utah into Nevada. I support the work of the Utah Hospitality Association (UHA) but if left to their own accord, I can’t help but think they want to turn SLC into Marti Gras. Granted, the laws in Utah are goofy but we’re still able to pour drinks, buy bottles of wine and do shots. Utah is very conservative but that hasn’t stopped me or the thousands of people I serve every week from getting drunk. Both sides of the debate need to get some perspective of the impact of their actions have upon the sale of alcohol in the state and there is no way to get this perspective when everything is in constant motion. The state legislature needs to stop tinkering with the liquor laws if only to observe the impact of their decisions.  Selfishly, legislators should stop making laws for three years just to annoy the hell out of the UHA. Nothing irritates an annoying child than ignoring them.

It’s time for another Beer Summit. Senators Valentine and Waddoups need to swing by Keys On Main to have a beer with UHA President, Trenton David, and Piper Down owner, David Morris. In a perfect world, over pints of Guinness and Shirley Temples, I am sure they could come to some sort of agreement. Part of my job as a bartender is to settle arguments and I think when presented with both sides of the dispute, I can come to a decision. This probably won’t happen but I would still love to pour those drinks.

Ben Raskin can be found behind the bar at Keys On Main Wednesday through Saturday. Follow him on Twitter @BennyRaskin, his Tumblr feed or become a fan of Behind The Bar on Facebook.

2 thoughts on “Behind The Zion Curtain

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