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Draper • An Arkansas businessman was sipping a drink at the Vuda bar earlier this week, wondering what a so-called Zion curtain looks like.
Bartender Michelle Winn was trying to explain as she mixed a martini this time without having to step behind a large clouded white glass partition that once hid her and dozens of liquor bottles from public view. She said that although customers were complimentary of the Vuda club and its spectacular view of Salt Lake Valley before the curtain was taken down, they expected to see their drinks being mixed, so most never came back.
But last week, liquor commissioners in effect lifted the curtain when they approved a merger between Vuda and the closed Skybar, which had been a fixture at the Red Lion hotel in Salt Lake City for nearly a decade. With the consolidation, the Vuda is covered under the Skybar's club permit. And unlike liquor licenses for newer restaurants and beer-only eateries, scarce club permits don't require a partition or back room to mix drinks, pour a glass of wine or open a bottle of beer out of the public's view.
On Friday, Vuda owner Mohsen Asgari and employees took down the hated Zion curtain and smashed it to bits in the parking lot.
"We would have had to close if we had to keep the Zion curtain," said an emotional Asgari. "And 85 people would have been put out of work."
The fact Vuda had a curtain in the first place involves a curious twist in Utah's ever-shifting liquor laws. For months the Vuda was among 18 applicants waiting for a club license, which are in such short supply that none may be available for up to two years. Vuda owners had to make do with a restaurant license, which worked for its adjoining sister eatery, the Vuz. But with the restaurant permit came the Zion curtain at the bar, and a host of unhappy customers.
In accordance with Utah law, diners at the Vuz cannot see into the bar area, even when seated on separate patios.
"There's an energy at a bar it's where people come to socialize," said Justin Brown, a nondrinker from Sandy who brought a friend to the Vuda Tuesday. Cordoning off a bar makes it less interesting, he added, giving off an ambience more akin to a lunch counter.
The Vuda's inlaid wood floor tiles and stained glass decor are usually seen in fine dining restaurants in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas, said new Vuda partner Rich Ipaktchian, whose experience includes managing the Skybar, Mulboons and Peppercorn Steakhouse in Salt Lake City.
It is precisely the glamour surrounding the mixing of drinks that prompted Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, to push for partitions at restaurants to hide bartenders from public view. He said bar-like restaurants could encourage underage drinking and overconsumption.
"Listening to the shaking of the drinks and the sights can make drinking attractive," he has said. "That's one of the reasons that restaurants should not look like a bar."
The problem for the remaining 17 entrepreneurs is that no club licenses are available, forcing many to redo business models and floor plans to qualify for a restaurant permit. It would have been difficult for businesses to foresee such a bottleneck of club licenses. There has been no such lingering shortages of state-issued liquor permits since Prohibition ended in the 1930s.
Earl Dorius, compliance director with the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, predicted that the shortage of club licenses will prompt other establishments to merge with existing bars.
Eateries waiting for club licenses are trying a variety of options to stay in business. Among them:
• Dimitri Golesis has been waiting for a club permit since last fall when he opened Yorgio's Fine Dining in Holladay. Like the Vuda, he had to make do with a restaurant license for his business at 6121 S. Highland Drive. Customers don't like bartenders mixing drinks in a back room, owners say.
• The Dojo at 423 W. 300 South in Salt Lake City, also has been waiting for months for a club permit. Meantime, bartenders are not allowed to use taps built to the brick wall.
• Although 'Bout Time Pub & Grub snagged one of the last club licenses for its Taylorsville restaurant, the Holladay location has had to make do with a summer permit, which expires on Oct. 31. After that, the sports bar may only serve beer.
• Devils Daughter, 533 S. 500 West in Salt Lake City, also has only a summer seasonal permit. Owner Jimmy Dublino says if he can't get a winter license to continue serving alcohol, he'll have to lay off employees.
• Silver in Park City at 503 Main St., must make do with a seasonal club license.
Partitions must separate bars from diners. Here's what lawmakers require:
Restaurants open after January 2010 must install partitions to hide bartenders.
Beer-only eateries licensed after Aug. 1 must hide taps and servers opening bottles of brew.
Clubs are exempt from partition laws but no permits for them are expected to be available for up to two years.
Vuz Restaurant and Vuda Bar
Address • 12234 S. Draper Gate Drive, Draper
Weekday hours • 5 to 9:30 p.m., bar open until 11 p.m., Tuesday-Thursday
Weekends • 5 to 10 p.m., bar open until midnight, Friday and Saturday