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After weeks of no direct comment on the matter, the new administration at Utah's liquor-control agency endeavored Wednesday to clarify its position on whether diners are legally permitted to be served a glass of wine or a cocktail while studying a menu and before actually ordering food.

Contrary to an earlier "warning" to restaurant owners and to a follow-up memo to those who train workers to serve alcohol in eateries, the director of the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control said in a letter to the industry dated Tuesday that owners no longer will be cited if their employees serve customers a drink prior to an order being placed.

In a December newsletter item under the heading "WARNING!" in boldface, the DABC said Utah law "does not allow for an alcoholic drink to be served while a patron reviews the menu. To avoid a violation (the) best practice would be to require that the food order be placed prior to service of the alcoholic beverage."

New DABC compliance director Nina McDermott then weighed in with her memo, taking aim at the long-held practice of restaurants serving a drink to patrons before food orders are made. "The law does not allow for a one-drink exception," she said.

Blaming "misperceptions" by Utah's restaurant owners and the news media, new DABC Director Salvador Petilos said in his letter this week that the agency's directives and its interpretations of the law had been misunderstood.

"Contrary to published reports, once the restaurant confirms the patron will order food, a drink may be served while the patron reviews the menu," said Petilos, who has declined numerous requests for an interview to discuss the agency's position. "The department regrets that the holiday newsletter has been read by licensees and the news media as prohibiting a patron from enjoying a beverage while deciding what food to order."

Petilos said the newsletter warning was meant only "to inform licensees that perusing a menu was not, by itself, sufficient to comply with Utah law," in the opinion of the DABC. "Rather, prior to serving the patron an alcoholic beverage, the licensee must establish that the patron will actually dine at the restaurant. The department's position has been and is that as long as the server confirms the patron will be dining, alcohol may be served while the patron reviews a menu."

The law in question states: "A full-service restaurant may not sell, offer for sale, or furnish an alcoholic product except in connection with an order for food prepared, sold and furnished at the licensed premises."

Nine restaurants were issued citations last month in the agency's crackdown on the no-food, no-drink rule, causing an uproar in the restaurant and tourism industries amid complaints of inconsistent enforcement and worries about how diners would react if they were denied a drink before making a food order. The violations carry fines of $500 to $3,000 and license suspensions from five to 30 days.

On Tuesday, just days before tens of thousands of out-of-state visitors were set to descend on the state for the opening of the Sundance Film Festival and later the Outdoor Retailers Winter Market trade show, the State Bureau of Investigation, which conducts undercover stings and issues citations, said officers no longer will be citing restaurants if they serve diners a drink before ordering food, so long as customers eventually order.

Petilos' letter to the restaurant industry was obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune under the state's Government Records Access and Management Act, commonly known as GRAMA.