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Salt Lake City's Bohemian Rhapsody

Salt Lake City sings with a cosmopolitan face-lift, a hip arts scene, and trendy restaurants.

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  • 15th Street Gallery, Salt Lake City, Utah, image
    Photo credit
    Photo: Scot Zimmerman
    Photo caption
    An art buff takes in the white landscape of Salt Lake City's 15th Street Gallery.
  • Martinis at Red Door lounge in Salt Lake City, Utah, image
    Photo credit
    Photo: Scot Zimmerman
    Photo caption
    Martinis at the Red Door Lounge.
  • Needlefish sushi plate at Takashi, Salt Lake City, Utah, image
    Photo credit
    Photo: Scot Zimmerman
    Photo caption
    Chef Takashi Gibo creates edible art such as a needlefish sushi plate at his self-named eatery.
  • Slowtrain Music, record store in Salt Lake City, Utah, image
    Photo credit
    Photo: Scot Zimmerman
    Photo caption
    Slowtrain Music stocks some 7,500 CDs and LPs, and hosts live in-store music.
  • Urban Room at Salt Lake City library, Utah, image
    Photo credit
    Photo: Courtesy Wikipedia.org
    Photo caption
    The light-filled Urban Room at the main library in Salt Lake City has shops and study areas.

In a dark theater that was once a Mormon church, a man in his pajamas talks to a 12-foot angel. A mile away, a conceptual artist uses old Road Runner cartoons to explore themes of the American West while around the corner throngs of mountain-tanned twentysomethings sip high-octane martinis under the watchful gaze of Che Guevara.

Welcome to Saturday night in Salt Lake City—the new Salt Lake City. Not since the 2002 Winter Olympics has the state capital flared with such civic excitement. Downtown is in the midst of a $2 billion redevelopment project, and beneath the scaffolding and hard hats, streets are thrumming with activity that belies some of the city’s oldest stereotypes. Chain restaurants? They’re still here, but so are a growing number of bistros and high-concept kitchens. Megamalls? You could just as easily stroll through a dozen art galleries and mid-century furniture shops. Sleepy nightlife? In 2009 the state relaxed its liquor laws, giving rise to a host of new cocktail bars and brewpubs. For the first time in over 40 years, a person could simply walk into a Utah bar and get a drink.

Which I’m tempted to do, except that it’s 11 a.m. and I’m already light-headed. Climbing the curving staircase of the Salt Lake City Public Library as it coils six stories into a stratosphere of glass will do that to you. Completed in 2003 under the artful eye of starchitect Moshe Safdie, the building is a fever dream of avant-garde design—crescent-curved walls, spiraling fireplaces, and an abundance of natural light. It’s also a fitting symbol of the city’s renaissance.

“People sometimes have this false perception of us as a bedroom community,” says Jason Mathis, director of the Salt Lake City Downtown Alliance. Mathis is among the new guard of bright-eyed hopefuls promoting the idea of Salt Lake as cosmopolitan, diverse, caffeinated. “Did you know we were rated one of the top 10 most bohemian cities in North America?”

I hadn’t. But sure enough, Salt Lake City is the seventh most bohemian metro area in the United States—one spot behind Nashville, two ahead of San Francisco—according to Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class.

Eager to get a taste of Salt Lake’s boho side, I head to Broadway, a commercial strip of mom-and-pop shops that would feel right at home in San Francisco’s Mission District or southeast Portland. You can get served by talented baristas at Nobrow Coffee & Tea Company and peruse paintings by local artists. At Frosty Darling, a boutique with handmade gifts and candy plucked out of a 1950s diorama, owner Gentry Blackburn sells stuffed ninjas made from dress shirts and reams of wrapping paper too precious to tear. You may be met by Itsy-Bitsy Von Muffling, the house cat at Retro Rose, a funky vintage shop bursting with brightly colored dishes, bowls, vases, teapots, and other knickknacks. A few doors down, Slowtrain Music claims a scrupulously curated vinyl collection that leans heavily on underground and indie rock. The clerk perks up when I press him for a recommendation. “Check out these guys,” he beams, peeling a record from a group called Spell Talk out of a thick stack of disks by local bands. “They’re gonna be big.”

For more talent, head across town to the Sugar House neighborhood, where 15th Street Gallery fills its capacious all-white interior with paintings of urban landscapes, mixed media, and still-life flowers. The city’s best young artists get shown here, making it a prime stop on the popular third-Friday Gallery Strolls (first Fridays during December). “The visual arts scene is really starting to take off,” says artist Meghan Fall. “Before, there were maybe one or two shows worth seeing at any time, but now there’s so much going on you actually have to decide what you want to check out.”

A fresh crop of young, exciting chefs recently left behind Michelin-rated glory gigs in New York City and San Francisco to sharpen their knives beneath the scrub-covered peaks of the Wasatch Front. Got a favorite food trend? Chances are you’ll find it well represented in Salt Lake City.

I encounter farm-to-table fervor at Pago, a civilized bistro where the menu is footnoted with the names of local growers whose ingredients come together in such standout dishes as chèvre-stuffed figs drizzled with wildflower honey, and braised Morgan Valley lamb with house-made gnocchi. At Forage, twin-toques Bowman Brown and Viet Pham channel their inner alchemists with five-course meals that might include northern Utah rabbit with summer squash.

Asian taco trucks? Follow Chow Truck’s Twitter feed to find lemongrass chicken or flash-fried calamari in tender corn tortillas. Small plates? The Copper Onion tosses a pork-belly salad with crunchy brussels sprouts that’ll make you rethink ordering an entrée. Wood-fired pizza? The thin, perfectly blistered pies at Vinto come on sleek cutting boards that complement the restaurant’s modern decor.

I’m so moved by my sushi dinner at Takashi that I march up to chef-owner Takashi Gibo midmeal and demand to know how he comes by butter-soft kampachi and uni all the way out here, locked between two mountain ranges and a stretch of desert, and nowhere near an ocean. “I get the same fish they do in San Francisco and Seattle,” says Gibo. “Only I get it an hour earlier. It’s called mountain time.”

I could spend the whole night slow-chewing delicate slivers of Gibo’s choice fish, but I have plans. Up the street, the Salt Lake Art Center is premiering a new exhibit by 20 local and regional artists called Go West. Some two blocks away, I take in a searing performance of Angels in America put on by the Salt Lake Acting Company.

Ten minutes after curtain call I’m leaning against the ice-coated bar at the Beerhive Pub—the nerve center of Salt Lake’s up-and-coming craft brew movement—sipping a pint of locally batched Polygamy Porter (slogan: WHY HAVE JUST ONE!). From there, I head south one block to the Red Door, a mood-lit cocktail lounge, for a nightcap. A jazz combo brushes through Radiohead and U2 for a roomful of spaghetti straps and skinny jeans.

I walk up to the bar and order a whiskey. Neat. That’s when I notice Che Guevara. His wall-tall glare shoots straight over my shoulder, out the window, and into the city night. He’s got a faraway look in his eyes, like he sees something in the distance. It’s change—and I think it’s gonna be big.

Photography by Scot Zimmerman; Salt Lake City Library interior courtesy Wikipedia.org

This article was first published in November 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.