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Utah lawmakers OK bill to take down 'Zion curtain'

Wine spritzers are a summer favorite at Rovali's near Salt Lake City. Behind the bar, in full view of patrons, waiters siphon soda and syrup into glasses of ice — then they duck behind a fake olive tree and a barricade to add the chardonnay.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Wine spritzers are a summer favorite at Rovali's near Salt Lake City. Behind the bar, in full view of patrons, waiters siphon soda and syrup into glasses of ice — then they duck behind a fake olive tree and a barricade to add the chardonnay.

One of Utah's famously strict liquor laws forbids the restaurant from pouring alcohol in front of customers. The idea behind that ban is to shield the mixing of cocktails and pouring of drinks from children and underage customers.

The barriers, known here as "Zion curtains," went up around the state in 2010. They materialized as part of a compromise after lawmakers lifted a requirement for bars to operate as members-only social clubs. Right now, the curtain requirement applies to restaurants that are less than 3 years old.

But this year, the curtains may come down.

Utah lawmakers have advanced a repeal of the barrier mandate, a move they say would encourage new business. The bill now goes to the House floor.

Doing away with the curtains would mark small step by the state to relax Utah's tight grip on the sale and serving of alcohol.

A handful of bills now pending in Utah would ease the state's liquor regulations. They include a measure allowing customers to order a drink before they order food and another to make more liquor licenses available to restaurants.

A House committee gave the go-ahead Wednesday for a repeal of the curtain requirement. Some lawmakers debated whether the measure would encourage underage drinking. But others said they could not find any evidence that youngsters who see bartenders pour alcohol tend to drink underage or binge drink later in life. The House committee voted 9-3 to approve the bill.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser spoke out against the proposed repeal Wednesday, saying "we don't want our restaurants looking like bars."

The so-called Zion curtains go back decades in the state's history. The nickname nods to Utah's legacy as home to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A former incarnate of the barriers went up in the late 1960s in social clubs serving alcohol, and stood until the state legalized bars in 2009. Those former barriers took the form of glass walls separating customers from bartenders.

Opponents of today's Zion curtains say the law forces restaurant owners to waste money and space on configurations to keep bartenders out of sight. Some construct wall-like barriers, and others put up strategically positioned service bars. Curtain opponents also say the law hinders tourism by annoying outsiders and reinforcing their perception of Utah as staunchly sober.

Rovali's, the Italian restaurant, opened in Ogden in 2010. When waiters there explain the state's complicated liquor laws to out-of-towners, Montanez said, "You see the eye roll."

"That kind of stifles guests," he said. "They're a little rankled by these weird laws."

Some lawmakers warn that removing the mandate could encourage underage drinking and influence customers to drink too much.

The majority of Utah legislators and residents belong to the Mormon church, which teaches its members to abstain from alcohol.

"Alcohol is a drug," said Republican Sen. John Valentine, who opposes the law. "It has social costs. We have DUIs. We have underage drinkers. We have problems that are caused by drinking."

Valentine would consider supporting the proposal, he said earlier this month, if the state promised trade-offs such as bulking up police presence around restaurants and nearby roads or a measure keeping children from entering restaurants serving liquor.

Lawmakers would have to incorporate some of those safety measures for the Senate to pass it, Valentine estimated Wednesday.

For restaurant owners moving into existing spaces, the law presents a nightmare, said Republican Rep. Ryan Wilcox. Restaurants sometimes have to cut into floor space, he said, where more tables should be.

"It really just hampers the new guys, the little guys," Wilcox said. "A lot of these guys, too, they're not large operators. They've got one shop: 'This is my restaurant. My lifelong dream. I've invested everything into this.'"

At Rovali's in Ogden, Montanez plays sommelier for guests who order wine service. His performance underscores the patchwork nature of current laws. Montanez opens the wine at the table and invites guests to sniff the cork. If they purchase the bottle, he can pour and serve the bottle. If they order by the glass, however, he must slip away to pour the drink behind a partition.

"Everything we do is show," Montanez said, likening the visible pouring of drinks to a dessert cart.

The display of pastries and sweets bolsters dessert sales at the restaurant by about 15 percent, he said. And Montanez estimates that taking the curtain down would boost wine sales by a similar margin.

"You can't get creative, that's for sure," he said of the partition. "You have to stick with the rules."

Blake Ballard, owner of Spark restaurant in Provo, said that servers there mix drinks in a converted coat closet that also doubles as Ballard's office. To pour beer, Ballard said, servers weave around cooks in the kitchen. Making use of the restaurant's 16-foot bar, he said, would alleviate pressure on his staff.

"The beer's next to the chicken and the cheese," Ballard said, adding, "when you walk into a secret room and your pour it secretly, they're wondering, 'What did you do to my drink?'"

Melva Sine, president of the Utah Restaurant Association, said the curtain mandate confuses diners and raises eyebrows throughout the state. Utah should impose one set of rules for all restaurants, regardless of their start date, Sine said.

"It lessens consumer confidence: What's the reason that you're doing this in the back room?" she said.

Sine rejects the notion that the visible flow of liquor would tempt youngsters to drink.

"We have got to stop feeling like everyone who drinks alcohol is doing something wrong," she said. "We all want people to go out and enjoy themselves and be responsible."

Republican Rep. Steve Eliason said he worried that pouring and mixing drinks in public would advertise alcohol to underage customers. "I don't see the necessity of having it out in the open," he said.

But Rep. Gage Froerer, another Republican, called for the state to untie the hands of Utah business owners. "We are hurting tourism," he said. "We are hurting business."

Wilcox, who sponsors the bill to take down the curtain, is Mormon and does not drink. "It's really weird to be that guy," he said: "Mormon, a member of the LDS Church, debating your own church" in negotiations concerning Utah liquor laws.

Wilcox joked, "It's the one place where I can negotiate and pull out some scripture and it won't be weird."


Associated Press writer Michelle L. Price contributed to this report.