Utah: Revitalized Salt Lake City is Vibrant, Even Hip (Really!)
Hip hotels, funky cafes, and a great neighborhoods for hipsters
By Jessica Powley Hayden
The lights dimmed. The crowd cheered. All eyes were in the center of the dark room where two baby grand pianos sat, glaring at each other as the duel was about to begin.
A pianist, dressed in the requisite musician-black, reached into a fishbowl sitting atop his instrument. He slowly pulled out a slip of folded, white paper, containing the next song request.
“Rebecca, please step forward,” his voice commanded.
And within seconds, our friend stood atop the piano, celebrating her birthday, dancing to the infamous 90’s pop song, “I Touch Myself.”
Not the first image of Utah that pops into your mind? You are not alone. Yet Salt Lake City is a vibrant, even hip town.
Although Salt Lake City was founded by those who forsake caffeine and alcohol, downtown is undergoing a major revitalization with chic condos and cozy bistros popping left and right.
Independent coffee houses can be found scattered across the city, including “Beans and Brew” and “Jack Mormon Coffee,” in addition to the ubiquitous Starbucks. And there are not one, but two, piano bars downtown.
And that’s to say nothing of the outdoors. Utah is famous for its snow, boasting some of the top ski terrain in the country. But summer months are chock full of adventure, from hiking in the canyons surrounding Salt Lake City, mountain biking, rock climbing, and rafting.
Getting Around Salt Lake City
Salt Lake City was built on a grid system, designed by Brigham Young in the 19th century. For newcomers, it takes a few days to orient yourself, but once you get the hang of it, you barely need a map to get around.
All roads lead to Temple Square, the center of the grid system. All major roads are designated both numerically and directionally. Thus, if you are five blocks south of the Temple, you’ll be on 500 South. This road is an East/West road.
Likewise, if you are ten blocks east of the Temple, you’ll be on 1000 East, which is a North/South road. So, let’s say someone gives you the following home address: 250 South 1300 East. You’ll find this location on 1300 East, and 250 is the house number, located two and a half blocks south of the Temple.
To add to this confusion, most locals abbreviate street names. So, if you are heading to 1500 South 1500 East, a popular neighborhood, folks will say, “I’m going to 15th & 15th.”
Other great neighborhoods include 9th & 9th, located near Liberty Park and home to the best yoga studio in the city (Centered City Yoga), and some great restaurants. Sugar House is located south of 1700 South and north of 2700 South, and boasts great restaurants, shopping, and a nice park.
The city put in a great public transportation system, known as TRAX, prior to the Olympics in 2002. For a map and schedule, visit rideuta.com.
Don’t get me wrong. Salt Lake City is no New York, Tokyo, or London. But there is a side to this city after the sun goes down. One thing you’ll need to know is that bars (defined as an establishment where you can drink without ordering food) in Salt Lake City are “private clubs.”
This doesn’t mean you need to go through a rigorous application process to become a member of a club. You simply pay a nominal cover charge to become a weekly member. (You can also pay a higher fee to become a yearly member.)
There is, however, change in the air — just this week the Utah Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission voted 4-to-1 to abolish membership fees.
If you are in town for a few days or a longer stint, here are a few good watering holes:
The Bayou has over 150 beers and serves Cajun-style food. They also have live music and a few pool tables.
There are also a surprising number of microbreweries. Squatters Pub Brewery is my favorite, located on 300 South, smack in the middle of downtown. Try the Polygamy Porter.
Red Rock Brewery is right around the corner and has a great menu, in addition to its many brews on tap.
Utah also boasts an all-gay nightclub, the Trapp Door, located at 615 West 100 South, and is open Wednesday through Sunday at 9:00 pm. A great place for your dancing shoes.
Music thrives in Utah. It is home to the venerable Osmond family. And of course, the American-Idol runner-up David Archuletta created mania among local teens for the past several months. Local bands, from punk to alternative country, play in a variety of venues.
Monk’s House of Jazz is a great place to catch live music. There’s jazz of course, but Monk’s prides itself as home to the independent music scene in Salt Lake. You can catch hip-hop, reggae, and Indie rock bands here.
Mo’s Neighborhood Grill also has a small stage where you can take in blues and rock bands.
Red Butte Gardens recently constructed a new amphitheatre where you can see great national bands in a beautiful outdoor venue. Bring a picnic and enjoy music and the mountains together. This summer, EmmyLou Harris, Wilco, and Bonnie Raitt will all be in town for shows at the Gardens.
Every Wednesday, throughout the summer, you can catch a free mid-day concert in Gallivan Plaza, located in the center of downtown.
You can also check out the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for free on Thursday nights at their rehearsals, or buy tickets to see the live performances on Sunday.
The Utah Museum of Fine Arts is located on the beautiful campus of the University of Utah. There are some fantastic exhibits that come through here. Several months ago the museum had a Warhol exhibit and it is currently showing an array of impressionists, titled “Monet to Picasso.”
For the performing arts, check out the schedules at the Rose Wagner Theater, Ballet West or Abravanel Hall.
Where to Stay
There are several great bed and breakfasts around town. Within walking distance to the Temple and the beautiful state capitol, try the Inn on the Hill. This old mansion was built in 1906 and today has modern and stylish rooms. There is a nice library of movies and the breakfast is scrumptious.
Armstrong Mansion is also centrally located. It was built in 1893 by the then-mayor of Salt Lake City.
If you are interested in staying in the mountains, check out The Cliff Lodge located at Snowbird Resort.
Where to Eat
Salt Lake City is home to a diverse group of people. And with diversity, come great choices in cuisine. For great Middle Eastern food, try Mazza. There are two locations, one located at 9th and 9th, and the other at 15th and 15th.
Ichiban Sushi is a great place to get some fresh fish and a unique dining experience, as the restaurant sits in an old church. My favorite Thai joint is called Sawadee, located on beautiful South Temple Avenue.
Hands down, the best Mexican food can be found at the Red Iguana. It was featured on the Food Network’s “Diner’s, Drive-In’s and Dives.” Get there early. The waiting line for a table usually stretches out the door.
On the upscale side, try a night at Bambara, located at the Hotel Monaco or La Caille, a romantic French restaurant, located near the Cottonwood Canyons. Log Haven is also a great romantic spot located in Millcreek Canyon.
Trio boasts a lovely outdoor patio and is one of the hippest and trendy joints in town. Known for its attractive waiters and delicious flat breads, it is a great place to grab a glass of wine and enjoy the cool evening desert air.
For lunch, swing by Lazy Dog Pizzeria. It is by far the best pizza in the city. And while you enjoy your food, you can also take in the cute pictures of dogs, presumably lazy, lining the walls
Green Salt Lake
Salt Lake City is an environmentally conscious city. Organic foods are all the rage. Try the Tin Angel for some great organic cooking and enjoy the outside patio overlooking Pioneer Park.
For a unique organic dining experience, One World serves organic and unprocessed food. There is no set menu, giving the chefs the flexibility to cook with in-season ingredients. What makes this place really special, however, is the absence of prices. As a guest at this non-profit restaurant, you pay what you think is appropriate and can afford.
Also, visit the Farmers Market at Pioneer Park every Saturday from July through November for local produce and other treats.
The Great Outdoors
There are so many great things to do outdoors, you just need to get here to experience it.
Here are some good planning resources:
And of course, skiing
If you have more time, consider a few of the following excursions from Salt Lake City.
Park City is about a half hour drive from Salt Lake City and has become quite famous over the past several years as home of the famous Sundance Film Festival. You can stroll down Main Street and visit the various art exhibits, great restaurants, and bars.
Antelope Island sits just north of the city, in the middle of the Great Salt Lake. This state park is largely ignored by out of town visitors; a hidden gem and a great place to hike or bike.
Drive across the causeway and you’ll find yourself in a largely untouched land where buffalo and antelope range free. You might even find yourself watching coyotes howl at dusk.
There are no less than five national parks in southern Utah. Consider making Moab your home base to visit Arches and Cayonlands National Parks, about four hours south of Salt Lake City.
Stay at Red Cliffs Lodge, sitting right on the Colorado River. Not only is the setting breathtaking, but you can also sample some vino from their winery, located here.
And most of all, enjoy Hip Utah!
Jessica Powley Hayden is a lawyer and freelance writer. She currently lives in Salt Lake City. Visit her website at jesshayden.com.