The Worst Kind of Speakeasy: Behind Utah’s Zion Curtain

The Zion Curtain—one of Utah's many examples of Mormon influence—is a barrier behind which all restaurants serving alcohol must hide their bar. Anne Zimmerman on what's lost when you take away the aesthetics of bartending and wine service.

All drinking is theatre. The restaurant is the stage; the bottles and glassware are the set. And we drinkers are both actors and audience members in the ultimate participatory show. We are altered not just by the alcohol, but by the experience of drinking.

So what happens if the set is stripped down, with many of the most characteristic sights and sounds removed? What if restaurant drinking felt a bit like consuming booze on an airplane: a full glass, unceremoniously delivered?

Welcome to Utah.

The Zion Curtain is a 7-foot-2-inch partition that separates bartenders preparing drinks from the consumers who order them. The idea was born in the late 1960s, when frosted glass barrier walls became required in “social clubs serving alcohol” – private membership clubs that existed before bars were legalized in the state. In 2009, Governor John Huntsman signed legislation that allowed existing restaurants to remove the partitions as a part of a general loosening of the state’s liquor laws. But in 2010, the barriers went back up, becoming required in all new restaurants that hoped to serve.

The point, obviously, is control, specifically the Mormon Church’s desire to influence both state affairs and keep local restaurants as family-friendly as possible. The logic is that obvious alcohol paraphernalia encourages both underage drinking and adult over-consumption.

In January 2015, my husband and I went looking behind the Curtain. Our first stop was the Copper Onion, a popular downtown Salt Lake City restaurant. From our corner table we ordered drinks and watched the restaurant start to fill up. A few minutes later I stood up and made a show of looking for the bathroom, peeking into the corner where they made the coffee and walking past a dozen people who were sitting at what looked like a bar, only there was no back bar or bartender, and none of them had drinks. All I found was the front door.

Where was the Zion Curtain? The young host smiled and pointed to a large, gold-framed mirror immediately inside the front door.

“There,” he said.

“There?”

“We go back there to make all the drinks,” he said. “It’s a two-way mirror.”

The couple sitting in front of large, metallic-rimmed mirror did not smile as I tipsily snapped a photo, but odds are the bartender on the other side was laughing, albeit ruefully. The Zion Curtain, along with other archaic laws, like 3.2-percent beer, is a source of embarrassment for local drinkers and restaurateurs. A bartender at a restaurant even started a short-lived Instagram feed devoted to photos of customers taken from the other side. Boredom, tooth picking and fingers up the nose all make appearances.

We visited three more places that night—another restaurant and two bars. And just as it would in any city, the scene varied from beguiling to dim. Did seeing—or not seeing—booze make me less or more likely to drink? I wasn’t sure.

My answer came the next night. It was early but the small restaurant was busy. Our two snug bar seats looked into the kitchen. I ordered a glass of Champagne, my husband ordered a cocktail made with local, small-batch whiskey. It was just like eating out in San Francisco except for the frigid air that blew in every time someone opened the front door.

But then I noticed something. Crammed into the tiniest of kitchen corners, obscured by a velvet curtain and the narrow maître d station, was the bar. As wide as a laptop and only a bit taller, it was a third—no, a quarter—the size of our home bar. We watched as a curly haired guy in a black t-shirt mixed and delivered a drink.

Suddenly, I felt both guilty and hyper-aware of the scene: that the restaurant was a bit colder, a little brighter and a lot quieter than it might have been; that only a few tables were obviously drinking alcohol; that our seat at the bar was a misnomer because there was no active bar. Instead, we stared at the cook—an aesthetic experience, but not a social one.

In 2014, the LDS Church produced a shiny video arguing the benefits of Utah’s strict alcohol laws. “You need to ask yourself these questions,” a friendly male narrator says. “How important is it to see your drink being made? Does it really matter as long as you get your order?”

It’s a good question. How much more vibrant would the Salt Lake City restaurant scene be without the strict influence of Mormonism? Would the theater of drink making or the execution of proper wine service make everyone’s spirits, and tips, a little higher? What it comes down to is the loss of an interaction and the stifling of human curiosity. For as long as drinks have been mixed and beers have been poured, the bartender has served as part confidant and part magician. But here in Utah’s restaurants his role as all of those things has been muted. He’s literally become the Man Behind the Curtain, forced to secret away all of the allure of drinking at a bar.

The Zion Curtain may not always be obvious, but it’s there. And the implication is clear: that drinking is not quite fit for public consumption. Do it if you must, but don’t make a show of it, please.

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