Ah, Thursday night — the only truly social night of the week. It’s the night when babysitters are booked, friends convene, and drinks are consumed. There are no family obligations to fulfill or weekend crowds to elbow through — and the night’s possibilities are endless. It starts after work and ends whenever you want. In any city. All over the world. This week, we’re presenting the perfect Thursday night in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Believe it or not, there’s plenty to do in Salt Lake City after the sun sets. (Photo: Steve Greenwood/Visit Salt Lake)
Salt Lake City doesn’t exactly have a reputation as a nightlife hotspot, but its family-oriented culture long ago spawned a lively counterculture that in recent years has come of age in a big way.
You’ll likely spend at least a night here at some point, and new arrivals tend to need direction on where to best spend that evening. As the “crossroads of the West,” Salt Lake City is strategically set in the middle of the Western U.S., which makes it a likely stopping point on cross-country road trips. Its sizable convention center hosts everything from the twice-annual Outdoor Retailer show to the national atheists’ convention. Did I mention the powder? Eight ski resorts are within an hour’s drive.
It’s easy to explore the city. Travel is easy on the expansive light-rail system. And while it’s illegal to flag down a cab in Utah (oh, Utah!), apps like Uber and Lyft are rendering that a nonissue.
Many of the best things to do in Salt Lake City are of the daytime sort: hike in a nearby canyon, ski the slopes, hit the fabulous Natural History Museum, hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, or shop at the glitzy City Creek Center.
Start the evening off right: Take a selfie with the Joseph Smith sphinx at Gilgal Sculpture Garden. (Photo: Bill Harper)
Kick off your evening with a taste of Americana, Utah style (would that be Utahcana?). Take the TRAX light rail to Gilgal Sculpture Garden, which was built by a man obsessed with the twin themes of religion and masonry. Be sure to take a selfie with the Joseph Smith sphinx.
(Photo: Weller Book Works/Facebook)
Since that’ll take only a few minutes, you can then head to Trolley Square (once an actual trolley station) and shop at Weller Book Works, one of the city’s great independent bookstores. Or take the light rail a few blocks west and visit Ken Sanders Rare Books. Browse the selection, pick up a Monkey Wrench Gang T-shirt designed by cartoonist R. Crumb and chat with Ken himself (he’s the one with the Gandalf-like beard).
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If the weather’s nice, go around the corner to Copper Common, sister bar to the Copper Onion restaurant, and sip a cocktail or local beer on the patio.
Getting a table in Salt Lake City is not usually a problem, but it’s a good idea to arrive early to ensure a table at top restaurants like Finca (fabulous tapas and cocktails), Pallet (communal small plates in an intimate space), and Valter’s Osteria (where the charming proprietor, Valter, might help serve your Tuscan dinner).
Pallet (Photo: Pallet/Facebook)
It’s hard to narrow down which restaurant to go to — that is, which one to hit if you’ve already experienced Red Iguana. When I used to interview touring artists as a music writer in Salt Lake City, I was amazed by how many of them said they love coming to the city just to eat here. A line stretches out front even when it’s freezing.
Halibut en mole de fresa at Red Iguana. (Photo: Red Iguana Restaurant/Facebook)
What makes it special? Mole. You must try the rich, complex sauce with hints of dark chocolate and what seem to be a thousand spices blended beautifully together. The bottom line: If you’ve spent a night in Salt Lake City and haven’t gone to the Red Iguana, you’ve done yourself an injustice.
Don’t drink too many margaritas at the Red Iguana, because our next stop is a bar. And don’t eat too much, either, as difficult as that will be. You’ll want some open tummy space.
The number of decent bars in the city is growing, and bartenders are finding ways to get around Utah’s arcane liquor laws. Beer on tap can have no more than 3.2 percent alcohol by weight or 4 percent by volume. A mixed drink can have no more than 1.5 ounces of the primary liquor, but it can have another full ounce of alcoholic “flavoring.”
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(Photo: Whiskey Street/Facebook)
Partly because of these laws, Salt Lake City came late to the craft cocktail scene, but it’s finally arriving. The bar is high for bar food, too, and Whiskey Street’s braised pork belly corn dogs with jalapeno corn meal batter and mango mustarda give it an edge. Squeeze into a high-ceilinged, wood-centric space that’s almost always crowded and share an order with friends. If you love beer but don’t like crowds, the Beer Hive Pub, just up Main Street, has a more casual vibe.
At Whiskey Street: Rosemary Lamb Chops with Roasted fingerlings, creamed spinach, charred rosemary demi, mint pesto (Photo: Whiskey Street)
Salt Lake City has always benefited from the fact that it’s a one-day tour-bus drive from Denver or the West Coast. This means almost any band doing a national tour will end up spending the night here — and if you’re spending the night, you might as well catch a show.
(Photo: Garage on Beck/Facebook)
The city offers many live-music options: The Depot is one of the bigger indoor venues in town. Locals complain about the high drink prices, but its size attracts big-name acts. The Garage on Beck, on the edge of an industrial area, is cheerfully homey with a spacious patio decked out in picnic tables and populated by bikers, blues lovers, and tattooed 20-somethings.
The State Room has room to take a break between sets. (Photo: The State Room/Facebook)
My favorite venue is the State Room, where I memorably saw The Coup one Thanksgiving eve — there’s nothing like funky hip-hop rage against The Man to get a family holiday started. The 300-capacity space has a standing area in the front and stadium-style seating in the back, convenient for catching a quick rest between sets.
After all that dancing at the concert, you might be thirsty again. Hire a car to drive you a few blocks north to Bar-X and the Beer Bar. Open since Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Bar-X was a college hangout, but a recent revamp changed the focus to cocktails and the clientele to cosmopolitan.
Ample beer and sausages are available at Bar-X. (Photo: Bar X/Facebook)
More exciting for beer lovers, though, is what’s happening next door. Bar-X owners (including actor Ty Burrell) opened the adjacent German-inspired Beer Bar earlier this year, offering a vast beer menu (and beer cocktails) and tasty sausages consumed bierhaus style at long communal tables. The atmosphere is cheerful and rowdy, especially when soccer games are playing on the many TV screens.
Fuel up for the rest of the night with some bites at Rye. (Photo: RYE Diner & Drinks/Facebook)
If you have energy to spare, head a few blocks east to Rye, a new ultramodern diner that sits beside a longtime music venue, the Urban Lounge. Music flows in from next door, which could be a good or bad thing, depending on the band, and a video feed lets you watch shows live. And in case you’re somehow hungry as the clock ticks toward midnight, Rye serves tasty Asian-accented bites like street dumplings or imaginative desserts like rye sundae with whiskey caramel.
Chocolate custard with grapefruit gelée, candied grapefruit, whipped crème fraiche & toasted hazelnut (Photo: RYE Diner & Drinks/Facebook)
When beer is your only choice after midnight, head to The Vault. (Photo: Steve Greenwood/Visit Salt Lake)
Return to your hotel and either fall into bed or grab a nightcap. For a long time, many of Salt Lake City’s best cocktails were served in hotel bars, and that’s still true to some extent. Along with clubs, hotels are your best bet for a cocktail after midnight (you can get beer in restaurants and pubs until 1 a.m.; but midnight is Cinderella time for mixed drinks and wine). I like the always reliable Hotel Monaco and its bar, The Vault, which pays homage to the building’s former life as a bank.
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