By Paula Conway
The goal on my second trip to Salt Lake City was to add some color to a city famous for its snow and salt. Happy to say, mission accomplished – and much easier than expected.
My first visit came a few months prior to the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. The snow had piled knee-high along the streets of downtown, where Olympic-themed banners advertised the coming global attraction. Most of my time was spent skiing the slopes, testing out the Wasatch Mountains’ famous powder. It was just right.
This time, even though fresh snow beckoned during a mid-week in May, my two-day trip would be dedicated to unearthing treasures on the valley floor.
The Hotel Monaco served as the perfect launching pad. While it blends inconspicuously into Salt Lake City’s classic downtown and is housed in a brick building formerly occupied by a bank, the Monaco’s colorful interior was just what I was looking for.
My room was delightfully laden with reds and greens and golds, with plenty of white – if I wanted it – sitting outside my window on the mountains. The setting’s useful quirks extended to the smallest detail, namely a goldfish in my room that served as a provisional pet.
The warmth was far from superficial, however. An elegant living room downstairs is the place to find complimentary coffee in the morning and wine by night. The friendly staff was willing and able to help make the most of my visit.
Knowing I was hungry to experience Utah’s vibrant side, I was urged to visit the home studio of a local artist, Pilar Pobil. Pilar was born in Spain but has become something of a local institution here. I called to arrange a visit*, hopped in the rental car. and discovered even more color than I bargained for.
The rich, earth-toned pastels seemingly jumped off her interior walls, whetting my appetite for the dynamic hues of her artwork (and inspiring me to do away with the beige on my own walls). Pilar had just had a showing at the Patrick Moore Gallery in April and was preparing for her annual home studio exhibit in June, an exhibition featuring five other artists. It wouldn’t take that many artists to achieve the diversity of Pilar’s portfolio, which features paintings of people, plants, and landscapes, and utilizes everything from earth tones to bright primaries.
I purchased a pair of prints, but my art jones wasn’t satisfied. Per Pilar’s recommendation, I headed to the Phillips Gallery for a quick browse before dinner. Some of its contemporary sculptures would not look out of place at MOMA, and some of the paintings show so much skin as to make a Mormon mother cover her child’s eyes.
It was back to the Monaco for dinner at Bambara, the in-house restaurant just off the lobby. Reservations are recommended, and it was easy to see why at a glance, what with a crowded cluster of patrons creating a low din over contemporary American dishes.
The homemade potato chips topped with bleu cheese were a sinful, garden-fresh appetizer. Save room for your entrée, because it is designed to fill you up. I rolled the dice on the bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin and was rewarded with a juicy and tender dish. For dessert, I needed something a little more conservative. The crème brulee trio did the trick, and the sugar pumpkin, dark chocolate, and tangerine flavors were a welcome twist on the classic custard and hard caramel.
Bambara’s urban veneer was dovetailing nicely with the rest of my Salt Lake City experience. Having uncovered the city’s sophisticated side, I needed to dig into some only-in-Utah activities on Day 2.
Taking in the fresh morning air, I walked around the corner from the Monaco to catch breakfast at the Lamb Grill and Café. Knowing my feet would need the boost, I opted for a power breakfast of a cheddar cheese omelet, sliced bananas, and a strong cup of coffee. Then it was on to Temple Square, a walkable two city blocks north.
The 10-acre downtown centerpiece is full of contradictions. Even though it’s a mecca for tourists of all religious persuasions, it’s hardly a tourist trap – admission to one of its guided half-hour tours is free. Among so much sightseeing, it may be easy to forget the grounds are also a spiritual center for the Latter-Day Saints. Needless to say, I’m glad I remembered my camera.
Beginning at 9 a.m., tours depart every 15 minutes from the North and South gates and are delivered in 40 different languages. Since there’s enough beauty and history here to hold my attention, I choose English. A pair of young and friendly “sisters,” sent here to serve their church mission, serve as my guides. They explain the history behind each of the tour stops: The Mormon Tabernacle (no one was singing while I passed through), the North Visitors Center with its imposing 11-foot Christus replica statue, the 21,000-seat Conference Center, the Family History Library, and the Temple itself – whose doors are closed to non-Mormons.
Of everything on the tour, the one that kept calling me back was the Family History Library. It’s a mecca within a mecca – specifically, for genealogists. I got lost in their digital library, and only hunger pangs eventually pried me from my seat. I left with some data in hand covering a couple centuries’ worth of roots.
Onto lunch, where on my walk back to the hotel I found an upscale casual treasure in Martine. Their southwest chicken salad was more refreshing than spicy, and was filling without being too heavy.
Back in my hotel room, I was yearning to pore over some of my family history, but couldn’t resist a power nap after a morning spent on my feet. Even after waking up, I wanted the relaxation to continue.
That led to an afternoon excursion to the spa at the Grand America Hotel, the opulent older brother to the hip-yet-sophisticated Monaco. I didn’t want to confess that I was staying four blocks up the road, and ultimately I didn’t have to. The $25 surcharge to use the spa is waived with the purchase of any service.
I chose to bask in the opulence with a Duet Massage. Imagine a pair of classically trained pianists using your body to perform a 50-minute Tchaikovsky masterpiece. It’s kind of like that.
I certainly wasn’t willing to leave, but my final dinner in Salt Lake City had to be spent at a local treasure that would make me feel back at home — with a room full of strangers. Cleverly called Brewvies, it’s a fairly straightforward combination of a bar, movie theater, and a diner that begs the question: Why hadn’t anyone thought of this before?
Maybe someone in Utah was waiting for the state to relax its curious liquor laws, which had been in place from 1935 until 2009, to unleash this idea. Regardless, once I finished talking about my family tree, I knew I would be telling friends about watching Date Night with a chicken sandwich and beer in hand.
After checking out of my hotel the next morning, I realized I had two options: Try to open a Brewvies of my own, or bring some friends back with me on my next trip. Knowing that Salt Lake City boasts such a broad spectrum of cultural hues, a return visit shouldn’t be a tough sell.
* Call 801-359-2356 to book a studio tour.