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Utah liquor bill aims to take down 'Zion curtains'

Wine spritzers top the list of summertime drinks at Rovali's near Salt Lake City.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Wine spritzers top the list of summertime drinks 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.

For diners, seeing every step but the last "is like watching the first three quarters of the movie," then shutting it off, said restaurant owner Alex Montanez.

The dodge and pour routine is common in Utah and an indicator of the state's famously strict liquor laws. The restaurant barriers, known as "Zion curtains," went up in 2010 as part of a compromise after lawmakers lifted a mandate requiring bars to operate as members-only social clubs.

This year, however, the curtains may be coming down.

Utah lawmakers are considering whether to repealing the requirement, which doesn't apply to establishments that are more than 3 years old, to ease up on newer restaurants and encourage others to open shop. It would mark yet another baby step by the state to relax its tight grip on establishments that serve alcohol.

Lawmakers have introduced a handful of bills this year that would relax Utah's liquor code, including a measure allowing customers to order a drink before they order food and another to make more liquor licenses available to restaurants.

They are scheduled to discuss whether to do away with the curtains Wednesday; the measure has not yet been voted on by either chamber.

The bill's supporters say the barrier law forces restaurant owners to waste money on reconfiguring their spaces and that it hinders tourism by annoying outsiders and reinforcing their perception of Utah as staunchly sober.

When waiters at Rovali's explain the state's befuddling 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."

The measure won't breeze through the Republican-dominated legislature. Some lawmakers warn that removing the mandate could encourage underage drinking and influence customers to imbibe too much.

The majority of Utah legislators and residents belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which teaches its members to abstain from alcohol. The nickname "Zion curtain" is a nod to the state's religious heritage as the home of LDS Church.

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

Valentine said he would consider supporting the proposal 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.

For restaurant owners moving into existing spaces, the law presents a nightmare, said Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden. 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, setting off a presentation that 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 without restriction. 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."

Melva Sine, president of the Utah Restaurant Association, said the curtain mandate confuses diners and raises eyebrows. 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."


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