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When the Eccles Theater opens in three weeks in downtown Salt Lake City, the state-of-the-art project will have one of the most unique dining features in the country — a "Zion Ceiling."

Like its well-known sibling, the "Zion Curtain," the ceiling will prevent patrons standing on the theater's sweeping balconies from seeing alcoholic drinks being mixed and poured inside the 40-seat restaurant in the Grand Lobby.

Officials from the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (DABC) have been working with theater architects for about a year to ensure that the Encore Bistro has a liquor dispensing area that met all state requirements.

But it wasn't clear that a ceiling was needed until a few weeks ago, when a DABC compliance officer made his final inspection, said Cami Munk, communications manager for the Salt Lake County Center for the Arts. The need to install the ceiling "became apparent once the DABC could see the actual environment and upper views to the mixing booth," Munk said.

Crews are scrambling to construct the "Zion Ceiling" — and make it aesthetically appealing in the expansive six-story open lobby — in time for the theater's grand opening Oct. 21.

Vicki Dunnington, executive director for food and beverage at the theater, said the ceiling will be in place — allowing liquor to be served at the restaurant — in time for the celebration.

While the Encore Bistro opened to the public — without alcohol — on Sept. 19, "the theater is still a construction zone," she said. "We are working with the DABC and the architect, and we'll be able to use our license by the end of the process."

Under state law, liquor dispensing at new restaurants cannot be "readily visible" to restaurant patrons, said DABC spokesman Terry Wood.

Typically, walls that are at least 7 feet 2 inches high will suffice. But in the case of the cubicle-size dispensing area at Encore Bistro — which has four high walls and an open ceiling — the mixing could still be visible from above.

This instance is the first — the "Zion Curtain" law was enacted in 2009 — that a restaurant has been forced to enclose a dispensing area with a ceiling, Wood said. While the situation is unique, "until the Legislature changes the law, we have to make sure it is enforced."

Recent attempts to repeal the law have been unsuccessful.

The barrier requirement, critics say, makes Utah look strange, confuses diners and out-of-state visitors, and lacks scientific evidence that it prevents overconsumption or underage drinking.

Critics also say the law is unfair and costly for new restaurant owners because businesses that were serving liquor before the law was enacted are exempt from the barrier requirement.

The Eccles Theater, which will host touring Broadway shows, concerts and other major entertainment events, is designed by world-renowned architect Cesar Pelli of Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, along with HKS Architects of Salt Lake City. It is being developed and built jointly by Salt Lake City, the Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County at a total cost of $119 million.

The DABC granted Cuisine Unlimited, which will operate food services at the new theater, three separate liquor licenses in February: one that allows alcohol at catered events, another that allows beer that is 4 percent alcohol by volume (or 3.2 percent by weight) to be served to patrons from concession stands on performance nights and a third that allows beer, wine and spirits at Encore Bistro.

The restaurant license is on hold until the "Zion Ceiling" rises.

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