Action Off the Mountains in Salt Lake City
Cayce Clifford for The New York Times
By CHRISTOPHER SOLOMON
Published: July 25, 2013
As an occasional Utah visitor, I’ve viewed downtown Salt Lake City like many other travelers who find themselves in the area: as a place to gas up the rental car as I race to the airport after a ski vacation in Park City or Alta. The word “interesting” rarely found itself in the same company with “downtown Salt Lake.” Its urban core was nearly vacant after dark, with few residents and even fewer restaurants and attractions. The double-length blocks and yawning streets hardly welcomed tourists or residents, either — the streets platted so wide, history tells, so pioneers could easily turn around their four-ox teams.
Now, though, a nascent renaissance has taken hold in downtown Salt Lake City, making a stop appealing even outside ski season.
Roughly 125 businesses of all kinds have opened or moved there since 2009, or are about to open — not counting 100 in the newest shopping center — according to the Downtown Alliance, which promotes the area. About 5,000 people now live there, too, a 35 percent jump since 2010, said Jason Mathis, the group’s executive director. No one will mistake it for the East Village, but downtown is starting to become a place people actually seek out to eat and play. One fact captured the change as well as any, apparent on a recent visit: Four craft breweries now operate within 10 blocks of Temple Square, the historic center of both downtown and of the teetotaling Mormon world.
“Salt Lake is really ascending, and all the stars seem to be aligned” for the future, Mr. Mathis said. “There’s good stuff going on.”
The single biggest catalyst of this change, strangely, is a shopping mall. In March 2012 City Creek Center opened, a sprawling, 23-acre mall adjacent to Temple Square that was completely financed by a development arm of the Mormon Church.
City Creek Center (shopcitycreekcenter.com), at 50 South Main Street, is a handsome monument to consumption. There are more than 100 stores, many of them high-end and new to the market — Tiffany, Nordstrom, Coach. The development also has Las Vegas-like fountains (music! jets of flame!), a fully retractable glass roof that closes in inclement weather and a river that runs through it (O.K., a stream; the eponymous, reimagined City Creek, with actual trout). A “Passport to Savings” with special offers and discounts for travelers can be picked up at the center’s customer service desk and area hotels.
The project isn’t so important for the Porsche sunglasses that you can now buy downtown as for what else it brought: vitality. The complex, which covers some two and a half city blocks, also has 1.2 million square feet of office space and three residential towers housing 800 units (with one more tower planned) and will incorporate an existing, soon-to-be-renovated Marriott hotel.
Spurred by the investment and the excitement, restaurateurs and other entrepreneurs have focused their attention anew on downtown in the last few years. Here are some highlights:
NEW AIRPORT CONNECTION In mid-April the Utah Transit Authority opened a light-rail connection between Salt Lake City International Airport and downtown. The six-mile TRAX line (rideuta.com) includes six new stations and takes about 20 minutes from Temple Square to the airport. A ride costs $2.50. The line connects to the system’s existing 140 miles of track (including the 90-mile Frontrunner train system, which connects Ogden, Salt Lake City and Provo).
This connection opens up an intriguing possibility for skiers: staying downtown, riding transit to the slopes and never bothering with the expense or trouble of a rental car. This past winter a public ski bus ran from six stops downtown to the resorts each morning, a ride of about an hour, and returned in the evening. Skiers can also ride TRAX from downtown to the 6200 South station and hop on resort-bound ski buses all morning (also included free with the Ski Salt Lake Super Pass). Here’s another reason to consider staying downtown and using public transportation: Hotel rates downtown, even for high-end hotels like the Grand America, can be dramatically lower than at ski areas.
RESTAURANTS There’s been an explosion of places to eat in downtown Salt Lake. Some 40 restaurants and other eating establishments have opened since 2010, or are poised to open — from Taste of Red Iguana, the latest outpost of the Mexican mini-empire in the food court of City Creek Center, to the Copper Onion, which Salt Lake magazine recently anointed the city’s best restaurant. Ryan Lowder, the local chef and owner, who had worked in the Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Mario Batali empires in Manhattan, opened the Copper Onion (thecopperonion.com), which serves American food with what he calls “a pretty decent Mediterranean influence” and lots of house-made ingredients, from the noodles in the popular beef stroganoff to some cheeses. A popular small plate is Utah oyster mushrooms with julienne Idaho potato sticks, a fried egg and fresh salsa verde ($9).
Mr. Lowder’s second restaurant, Plum Alley (plumalley.com) opened downtown in December 2011 and was named one of the Top 50 Best New Restaurants by Bon Appétit magazine. Named for its location on East Broadway, a now-vanished seedy street in the city’s turn-of-last-century multiethnic Chinatown district, Plum Alley is “white guys cookin’ Asian food,” Mr. Lowder said wryly — and offers ramen with homemade noodles and a bone broth, (starting at $11), or Pleasant Creek Ranch zabuton steak with local greens ($16).
Another very popular newcomer is Pallet (eatpallet.com), whose name is a nod to the restaurant’s location in the former loading dock of the Salt Lake Valley’s first creamery. The dining room’s décor of brushed steel-meets-reclaimed wood is fitting for a New American menu featuring appetizers like quail with plum sauce ($14) and entrees like bison osso buco ($30).
MUSEUMS A state with such tremendous natural assets deserves a museum of natural history fit to contain it. Now it has one — the Natural History Museum of Utah at the Rio Tinto Center (nhmu.utah.edu), high in the Wasatch hills overlooking downtown. Sheathed in copper and designed to blend with the mountainside, the dramatic building houses 10 galleries of fearsome skulls, ancient moccasins and interactive displays. Ramps let you see eye-to-eye with giant monsters in the dinosaur hall. And continuing research isn’t far away here: I was able to stare through glass windows and watch scientists cleaning dinosaur bones.
Inspired by Leonardo da Vinci, the Leonardo (theleonardo.org) is an interactive museum of science, technology and creativity that’s housed in the former public-library building downtown. Though it also features major traveling exhibitions (to Sept. 15: “101 Inventions That Changed the World,” in its first United States stop; November: “The Dead Sea Scrolls”), the museum emphasizes hands-on learning. When I first visited one year ago, the museum felt a bit unsure of its mission. My visit this spring found a more assured experience, including a fascinating mummies exhibition and an ongoing gene experiment that visitors could participate in.
CONCERTS AND FARMERS’ MARKETS A summer highlight for residents is the Twilight Concert Series (twilightconcertseries.com), mostly held on Thursday evenings July through early September in downtown’s Pioneer Park. Some 16,000 people regularly turn out to hear acts like the Black Keys, the Roots and My Morning Jacket. The summer’s lineup includes Erykah Badu (Aug. 8) and MGMT (Sept. 5). Tickets: $5.
The Downtown Farmers’ Market (slcfarmersmarket.org) is another popular standard, a 300-vendor market held on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. June to October in Pioneer Park. A second evening market starts in the harvest months, typically around August, from 5 p.m. to dusk. In a nod to the energy downtown, the Downtown Alliance is pursuing the idea of a more permanent, year-round market, analogous to Seattle’s Pike Place Market.
If you’re downtown on a Thursday, jump on what some locals call the “saints to sinners” program: Head to Temple Square and the tabernacle to see the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (mormontabernaclechoir.org) rehearse from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. (every Thursday) unless otherwise noted. Afterward visit the downtown mainstay Squatters Pub and Beers (squatters.com) and plunge into Outer Darkness (named for the Mormon concept of eternal punishment for the wicked): a Russian Imperial Stout that at 10.5 percent is the strongest beer it brews.
BIKE SHARING In April the city introduced its Greenbike bike-share program (greenbikeslc.org). The program is similar to those in Washington, D.C., and Madison, Wis. A 24-hour pass that gets users unlimited 30-minute trips costs $5; a seven-day pass costs $15.
There’s more to come: The city and county have agreed to finance a 2,500-seat, $110 million performing arts center (newperformingartscenter.org) scheduled to open in 2016 and expected to attract touring Broadway shows and other entertainment. A 1,000-room convention-center hotel is being debated at the moment, and another 1,000 condos and apartments are expected to appear in the downtown core in the next few years, said Mr. Mathis of the Downtown Alliance.
Yet for all these changes, downtown Salt Lake City isn’t a flashy destination, nor does it want to be — and that’s probably a great thing. Yet this surging city seems more confident than ever, so much that it’s seriously building a bid to host the Winter Olympics, again, in 2026.