SALT LAKE CITY — The art of bartending, Matthew Pfohl says, is all about the performance, the subtle dance of bottle and glass.
Over his career this virtuoso of the high-end pour has dazzled customers, effortlessly grabbing a top-shelf gin, say Bombay Sapphire, and making a delicate decant to create another liquid masterpiece.
But in Utah, his act takes place backstage. He mixes drinks out of view in the kitchen, one result of strict regulations governing alcohol and backed by the politically powerful Mormon Church.
Throughout the state, home to some of the nation’s most restrictive drinking laws, restaurants that opened after 2009 cannot legally mix cocktails or snap open bottles of beer in front of diners. Such adult fare, the strategy goes, should be kept from the view of impressionable children who might be eating with their parents.
The Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints says Utah’s laws reflect local mores and notes that some states have dry counties that ban alcohol entirely.
But now some people here want the so-called Zion Curtain torn down.
A bill introduced this year would permit restaurants with bars to prepare alcoholic drinks in public view, and allow customers to order a cocktail without first declaring their intention to eat. Critics insist such laws stymie Salt Lake City’s otherwise flourishing culinary scene and slow the growth of the state’s $7.4-billion tourism industry.
“Customers want to see you mix their drink,” said Pfohl, 28, beverage manager at Pallet, an intimate downtown eatery. “How do they know I’m not replacing their favorite alcohol with an inferior brand?”
Byzantine alcohol laws enacted at the end of Prohibition, critics say, give the Beehive State a reputation as a swarm of out-of-touch fuddy-duddies.
The laws limit the alcohol content in beer to 3.2% — less than the typical 5% — and require restaurants to derive only 30% of their sales from alcohol. Stiff drinks are also verboten here, with bars and restaurants required to use meters to avoid over-pours.
State law once forbade bars as well as restaurants from dispensing alcohol in the same area where it was stored. Bartenders dashed behind a barrier to prepare a drink. The requirement was dropped for bars in 2009 but still applies to restaurants opened since then.
At Pallet, set in the historic loading dock area of the city’s first creamery, Pfohl and other bartenders must mix drinks at a tiny makeshift counter inside the cramped kitchen, negotiating swinging doors to serve a drink and resume broken-off chats with customers.
State Rep. Kraig Powell, who co-wrote the Zion Curtain bill, represents the ski resort town of Park City, site of the annual Sundance Film Festival, where many filmmakers view the state’s drinking laws as something akin to a covered wagon parked in a lot full of Maseratis.
Opponents are already rallying against Powell’s legislation. The LDS church recently posted on its website a lengthy multimedia policy statement, complete with videos and graphs, urging lawmakers to uphold the current alcohol restrictions, with a high-ranking church official stressing that the laws are “closely tied to the moral culture of the state.”
His tone grandfatherly, D. Todd Christofferson, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the second-highest governing body in the church, says: “It’s very important that we avoid an alcohol culture.”
The church’s statement was timed to the recent start of Utah’s 45-day legislative session. The church bans alcohol use among its faithful; those who drink are forbidden to worship in temples.
In an interview at the church’s downtown headquarters, Michael Purdy quietly folded his hands and said that liberalizing the liquor laws was simply not good for Utah.
The director for government and strategic relations said stricter laws cut down on teenage drinking and drunk driving. The church’s website shows that in 2012, Utah had the nation’s lowest number of alcohol-related traffic deaths per capita.
“The evidence supports our claim that things are working just fine the way they are,” Purdy said. “We want restaurants to stay restaurants and bars to stay bars. We don’t want the two to morph into one.”
The church wanted to make sure its stance on alcohol was clear, he said. “There are a lot of members of our faith in Utah and so our voice carries influence,” Purdy said. “That makes us doubly sensitive as to when we speak up on an issue.”
Mormons make up a majority of Utah’s Legislature (some estimates say 85%) and three-fourths of the state’s nearly 3 million residents. But some Mormon lawmakers, along with LDS restaurant owners, want the laws loosened.
“We’re here in the worldwide headquarters of the Mormon faith, questioning its edicts,” said Ryan Wilcox, a 36-year-old state representative and member of the LDS church — a cellphone salesman with an easygoing style who calls his political intern “dude.” “I have an allegiance to my faith, but my job is to act on what I think is right.”
State promoters say Utah’s drinking laws discourage conventioneers and company relocations. A souvenir shop pokes fun at the teetotaling culture, selling shot glasses that read: “Eat, drink and be merry, tomorrow you may be in Utah.”
Purdy said Utah remained prime tourist turf despite its drinking laws: “Some might not want to visit here because of our laws, but people are still coming.”
Many call the LDS church a moderate, if monolithic, voice in Utah politics that has taken more middle-of-the-road stances in issues such as immigration, helping to keep the state’s political extremists at bay. But the church should keep its nose out of alcohol sales, they say.
“These are church people who are not drinkers trying to make the laws for people who do drink,” said Jason Mathis, director of the Downtown Alliance, a business promotion group. “That’s a real problem — and they just don’t get it.”
Utah’s drinking laws have loosened in recent years. Bars are no longer required to operate as members-only social clubs. The state increased the availability of bar licenses and dropped a law forbidding hotel patrons from ordering a single glass of wine from room service; in the past they had to order an entire bottle.
The Zion Curtain does allow for some rare exceptions. When one restaurant that had once been required to have a barrier received a coveted new license in 2011 allowing it to prepare drinks in front of patrons, workers carried out two 15-foot-long, 200-pound panels of frosted glass and smashed them in the parking lot to a round of cheers.
Odd laws remain: Small amounts of additional liquors added to complex cocktails must be poured from bottles marked “flavoring.”
Over at the Pallet restaurant, owner Drew Eastman sat at a table, savoring the decor he worked hard to create: wooden floors made from 125-year-old railroad trestles and a mirrored bar framed by wood imported from Europe.
But something is missing: bottles of alcohol, an aesthetic the owner misses. “It’s silly — just ridiculous,” said the 33-year-old father of four, who is Mormon. “It has hurt business and made people laugh. Every night tourists ask us about the drinking laws here.”
Back in the cramped kitchen, bartender Bijan Ghiai set up his bar. At a small table, he arranged metal shot pourers in front of shelves crammed with bottles. Cooks and servers brushed past. “It’s a really tight space,” he said. “You do the best with what you have.”
Moments later, he emerged from the kitchen, his hands full of drinks, and ran into a waiter. “Sorry,” he said, smiling sheepishly. “At least nothing spilled.”