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Utah liquor bill aims to take down 'Zion curtains'

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Wednesday, February 27, 2013 - 8:27 am

SALT LAKE CITY — Wine spritzers are a favorite at Rovali's near Salt Lake City. Behind the bar, in full view of patrons, waiters siphon soda and syrup into glasses of ice — then they duck behind a fake olive tree and a barricade to add the chardonnay.

Utah's famously strict liquor laws forbid the restaurant from pouring alcohol in front of customers. The ban is based on the idea that the state should shield the mixing of cocktails and pouring of drinks from children. The so-called "Zion curtains" went up around the state as part of a compromise after lawmakers lifted a mandate in 2010 requiring bars to operate as members-only social clubs.

But this year, the curtains may be coming down.

Utah lawmakers are considering whether to repeal the requirement, a move that would ease restrictions and encourage new business. Right now, the requirement applies to restaurants that have been in operation for less than three years.

Doing away with the curtain would mark yet another small step by the state to relax its liquor laws.

Lawmakers have introduced a handful of pending bills this year that would ease Utah liquor regulations, including a measure allowing customers to order a drink before they order food and another to make more liquor licenses available to restaurants.

They are scheduled to discuss whether to do away with the curtains Wednesday; the measure has not yet been voted on by either chamber.

The Zion curtains have a long history in the state, and its nickname nods to Utah's legacy as home to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The barriers first went up decades ago in the social clubs that existed before bars were legalized in 2009, unmistakable glass walls separating customers from bartenders.

Those who oppose the Zion curtains say the law forces restaurant owners to waste money and space on configurations to keep bartenders out of sight of patrons using barriers or strategically positioned service bars. Curtain opponents also say the law hinders tourism by annoying outsiders and reinforcing their perception of Utah as staunchly sober.

At Rovali's, an Italian restaurant in Ogden that opened in 2010, waiters explain the state's befuddling liquor laws to out-of-towners and, Montanez said, "you see the eye roll."

"That kind of stifles guests," he said. "They're a little rankled by these weird laws."

Some lawmakers warn that removing the mandate could encourage underage drinking and influence customers to drink too much.

The majority of Utah legislators and residents belong to the Mormon church, which teaches its members to abstain from alcohol.

"Alcohol is a drug," said Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, who opposes the law. "It has social costs. We have DUIs. We have underage drinkers. We have problems that are caused by drinking."

Valentine said he would consider supporting the proposal if the state promised trade-offs such as bulking up police presence around restaurants and nearby roads, or a measure keeping children from entering restaurants serving liquor.

For restaurant owners moving into existing spaces, the law presents a nightmare, said Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden. Restaurants sometimes have to cut into floor space, he said, where more tables should be.

"It really just hampers the new guys, the little guys," Wilcox said. "A lot of these guys, too, they're not large operators. They've got one shop: 'This is my restaurant. My lifelong dream. I've invested everything into this.'"

At Rovali's, Montanez plays sommelier for guests who order wine service, setting off a presentation that underscores the patchwork nature of current laws. Montanez opens the wine at the table and invites guests to sniff the cork. If they purchase the bottle, he can pour and serve the bottle. If they order by the glass, however, he must slip away to pour the drink behind a partition.

"Everything we do is show," Montanez said, likening the visible pouring of drinks to a dessert cart.

The display of pastries and sweets bolsters dessert sales at the restaurant by about 15 percent, he said. In comparison, Montanez estimates that removing the curtain would boost wine sales by a similar margin.

"You can't get creative, that's for sure," he said of the partition. "You have to stick with the rules."

Melva Sine, president of the Utah Restaurant Association, said the curtain mandate confuses diners and raises eyebrows. Utah should impose one set of rules for all restaurants, regardless of their start date, Sine said.

"It lessens consumer confidence: What's the reason that you're doing this in the back room?" she said.

Sine rejects the notion that the visible flow of liquor would tempt youngsters to drink.

"We have got to stop feeling like everyone who drinks alcohol is doing something wrong," she said. "We all want people to go out and enjoy themselves and be responsible."