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Salt Lake City: It’s a Lot More Than Just Mountains and Mormons

Salt Lake City: It’s a Lot More Than Just Mountains and Mormons


Clockwise from top left: “Happy-Go-Lucky” art installation courtesy Salt Lake City Arts Council
Sushi at Naked Fish Japanese Bistro
skiier: Onfokus/iStock; Neon Trees: Johnny Louis/WireImage

We’re all guilty of it. You hear the name “Salt Lake City,” and your mind immediately summons up images of guys in short-sleeve dress shirts and ties, clutching Bibles and eager to talk to you about Joseph Smith.

But while Mormonism may be a part of SLC’s fabric, it’s not its only defining trait. Join us as we take aim at some unjust beliefs about Utah’s capital city.

Myth No. 1: Everyone is a polygamous Mormon

For a city with a population of almost 200,000, it’s hard to paint everyone with the same brush. But we’ve got news for those weaned on the Book of Mormon, who believe that SLC is a walled-off Mormon citadel where nonbelievers are not welcome.

“That’s totally untrue,” says Chris Holifield, the producer and host of the “I Am Salt Lake” podcast. “I’m not Mormon and I’ve lived here for over 20 years, and I haven’t felt people ‘chilly’ to me one bit.”

As for polygamy—that practice is really only upheld by fundamentalist splinter groups, most of which are small and have congregated in nearby Hildale, UT, and Colorado City, AZ.

Myth No. 2: Utah is a dry state

Going hand in hand with the Mormon myth is the idea that, if you want to partake in anything stronger than a soft drink, you’d better head west until you hit Nevada.

When SLC hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics, the panic over the city’s dryness hit a fevered pitch: There were musings that Germany and Canada would just as soon boycott than be forced to stay anywhere without beer. But the truth is more complicated.

SLC isn’t completely dry, but it does have some strict liquor laws and traditions. For example, the city’s beer is infamously weak—at 3.2% alcohol, the visiting German athletes would probably rather use it for bathing than drinking (which is understandable—even Bud Light has 4.2% alcohol).

But the city doesn’t ban alcohol altogether. There are bars, stores, and clubs that are allowed to sell liquor until 1 a.m. (but not at all on Sundays, which isn’t unique to SLC, right, Boston?). Plus, “Modern Family” star Ty Burrell has a high-end eatery called The Beer Bar, which serves 150 different varietals in addition to bratwurst and Belgian fries. (Burrell also owns the cocktail lounge next door, Bar X.) So worry not, Germans!

Myth No. 3: The food is buttoned-down, too

Again, the Mormon cloud tends to color a lot of the rest of the country’s perception of Salt Lake City, and that extends to the food. The religion bans alcohol, coffee, and tea, which many have come to interpret as “keep everything as bland as possible.”

A look at SLC’s culinary scene, however, tells a different story. Remember Burrell’s Beer Bar? Well, the menu there was crafted by Food Network star Viet Pham, who’s been at the center of a burgeoning SLC foodie scene.

Pham’s former sous chef, Akane Nakamura, is now the executive chef at Naked Fish—a renowned Japanese restaurant with a world-class sushi bar run by executive sushi chef Sunny Tsogbadrakh. And local pastry chef Romina Rasmussen has almost single-handedly made SLC the place for kouign amann, a little-known (outside of France) delicacy that’s been described as “the love child of a buttery croissant and a bready baguette.” Who’s hungry now?

Myth No. 4: There’s no diversity

Fair or not, you might think the city looks a whole lot like Mitt Romney: white, heterosexual, and conservative. And you wouldn’t be totally wrong. But it is changing.

In 1970, Caucasians accounted for 97% of SLC’s population. By 2010, it had dropped to 86%. And, believe it or not, SLC topped a 2012 study by The Advocate of the most gay-friendly cities in America, beating out San Francisco and New York.

“The city itself is very liberal and a very progressive city,” says Holifield, who points to November’s election of the city’s first gay mayor. “The thing that surprises people the most when they come here is how normal it is. How it’s just like every other big city out there that they’ve maybe been to.”

In fact, it might even be more progressive than other big cities. The Advocate’s criteria included more than just Census data. It also took into account the city’s number of teams entered in the Gay Softball World Series, number of gay bookstores, number of gay elected officials, and number of semifinalists in the International Mr. Leather contest.

Myth No. 5: There’s no culture other than the Sundance Film Fest

While Robert Redford’s once-modest little film festival has grown into one of the largest cinema events in the world—and has certainly put Salt Lake City in the spotlight year after year—it’s not the only game in town.

SLC also attracts visitors with its 15 national parks and monuments, as well as its reputation as a ski mecca (make that Ski City). It’s become a booming music scene, boosted by a huge pool of regional talent, including Neon Trees, The Used, and Imagine Dragons. The SLC Arts Council offers inexpensive outdoor concerts, usually featuring big-name bands such as The Black Keys, MGMT, Bon Iver, Sonic Youth, and the Empire of the Sun.

“I’m not Mormon, I don’t ski, and I don’t hike,” Holifield says. “I still love living here and am proud to call this city home. I always find things to do. … Sometimes there is too much to do!

“We have an amazing foodie scene, great art scene, great music scene, great nightlife, fantastic local breweries, tons of local start-ups,” he adds. “The people here are so supportive. If you are a new business and you are from Utah, the people here will support you 100% and help you succeed.”

We debunk myths like it’s our job (because it is!). Check out what other cities’ truths we’ve uncovered.

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