I was in Salt Lake City for the first time in many years. Back in the day it was a non-drinking community whose downtown was dominated by the shining temple for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While still the seat of the Mormon church, Salt Lake City also has a cool hipster vibe, a booming economy and a reputation as a jumping off spot for epic skiing, biking and hiking trips.
Multiple travel sites and reviews describe the city’s craft brewpubs, trendy bistros and plentiful outdoor stores and boutiques. I was there because I heard a rumor it also had a growing speakeasy scene. I was determined to uncover a few Salt Lake City speakeasies.
Uncovering A Blind Pig: History of Salt Lake City Speakeasies
The business card for the upstairs joint—a tiny, main street taqueria called Bodega—had a colorful picture of Jesus holding a loaf of bread and a bottle of Negro Modelo.
Bodega was small, not much more than a couple shelves of groceries, votive candles and a few tables. The large green neon sign on its exterior didn’t seem to match the diminutive interior. The business card for Bodgega’s basement was equally intriguing. Plain white with a Braille imprint plus a printed phone number and street address, but no city.
Puzzled, I ran my finger over the card’s raised dots. One of the joint’s regulars leaned over and whispered confidentially, “It means blind pig.” And then he pointed to an unobtrusive, unmarked door near the taqueria’s cash register.
Blind pig and blind tiger were terms used for illegal drinking establishments during U.S. Prohibition when it was against the law to manufacture, sell or transport liquor. They were also called speakeasies—a nod to the need to speak easy (quietly) so as not to alert neighbors or law enforcement.
U.S. Prohibition lasted from 1920 to about 1933; lingering longer in a few states and longest of all in Utah, with a reputation for having the nation’s most restrictive drinking laws.
Drinking laws changed in Utah when Salt Lake City won the bid to host the 2002 Winter Olympics. Recognizing that an international crowd of wine loving French, beer drinking Germans and vodka drinking Soviets weren’t about to comply with strict drinking regulations, the state relaxed its alcohol laws in time for the event.
Bars and cocktail lounges could sell and serve liquor, but had to charge a membership fee and cover charge. In 2009, Utah recognized its changing demographics and booming tourism industry and relaxed its liquor laws even further.
Visiting Bodega and The Rest: My First of the Salt Lake City Speakeasies
Standing at the unmarked door near the Bodega taqueria cash register, I wondered if I needed a password. I didn’t. The guy manning the register told me to head on down.
Through the door and down two flights of stairs it was another world. While the upstairs Bodega was brightly painted, downstairs was a dark, moody basement with a totally different name—The Rest.
The Rest is a speakeasy in elegant, retro, Prohibition-era style. It was tastefully decorated with taxidermy animal heads, upscale pendant lights, vintage photographs and comfortable seating in a variety of arrangements from booths to conversational armchairs.
The tattooed waitress brought the drink and food menu. I asked what her favorite house cocktail was. She explained there was still a holdover from Utah’s more restrictive days—you must order food if you’re going to order a cocktail. It could even be a single shared appetizer.
The cocktail list was clearly composed by a craftsman with intriguing titles and drink ingredients. After ordering a popcorn appetizer, I mosied up to the antique wooden bar and asked the bartender to make his best cocktail. In the manner of all first-rate bartenders, he asked me a few profiling questions and then concocted a Loophole, a tasty combination of rye, St. Germain, lime, honey and lavender bitters.
The place filled up with regulars over the next hour including the owner, Sara Lund, an east coast businesswoman who came west to care for her ailing father and stayed. The changing culture of Salt Lake City was a draw and wanting a place to rest where locals could gather, she invested in the burgeoning bar scene. Hence the name of the speakeasy—The Rest.
Visiting BAR X—Another Salt Lake City Speakeasy
Later, I walked two blocks to the speakeasy themed lounge, Bar X, owned by Duncan Burrell and his brother, Ty Burrell, the actor/comedian best known for his role as Phil Dunphy, the oblivious father on the TV sitcom, Modern Family.
As with The Rest, entry to Bar X is a bit disorienting. Entrance is through the Beer Bar, a hipster Bavarian beer hall selling brats, fries, strudel (yes, the dessert) and beer. Enter the cavernous Beer Bar, look left for a doorway and elegant curtain entrance and walk through it into a dark, windowless room whose only lighting seems to come from the lights behind the bar. No secret password needed here, either.
Bar X was opened the year Prohibition was repealed, presumably operating under the strict Utah liquor laws of the day. After the Burrell brothers, along with other family members, bought Bar X, they operated it for three years before opening the adjoining Beer Bar in 2014.
Bar X has a Yelp reputation for serving classic, well-made cocktails, so I ordered an Old Fashioned. Because of Utah’s holdover liquor law about food, I assured the bartender I’d be ordering food in the beer hall.
Then I went next door for a brat and strudel. Surprisingly, brat and strudel are tasty food companions to a handcrafted, well-made Old Fashioned.
If You Visit the Salt Lake City Speakeasies
Bodega/The Rest is at 331 S. Main Street, Salt Lake City, Utah. Check out its website first. It encourages reservations and requires a reservation fee, but I arrived around 6 p.m. sans reservations and had no problem.
Beer Bar/Bar X is at 161 E. 200 South, Salt Lake City, Utah and I encourage you to try the fun combinations of classic drinks and beer hall food. in this fun take on the Salt Lake City speakeasies.