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Born Again in Salt Lake City

Roy Zipstein The Salt Lake City Public Library, designed by Moshe Safdie.

Photo: Roy Zipstein

That night around midnight I stepped onto the small balcony of my room. A chilly wind out of the west brought the fresh scent of sage. I could hear the faint snort of tractor-trailer traffic out on I-15 and the ineffably lonesome whistle of freight trains trundling through the yards of the Union Pacific. The snowy peaks to the east and south were chalked with moonlight. Red warning lights blinked on one of the tall downtown banks. The ghostly air that haunts many Western cities at night is especially keen in Salt Lake. It's that sense that the wilderness is waiting to come back—that the ground here has been settled only temporarily and the common dream of the people and all their trivial commotion could be blown away at any moment, that life is just a little short-lived pageant against the abiding silence of mountains and sky. I shivered and hurried back inside.

Friday night some friends avid to ski flew into Salt Lake. Blaine came from Seattle, Tom from New York, and Bill from Boston. We met at Metropolitan, the most award-draped of the city's restaurants. When I first worked at Alta, washing dishes the summer before ski season, lodges in Little Cottonwood Canyon did a big business serving dinner to people who didn't think twice about driving up and down the winding canyon road for a decent meal. Salt Lake City was not only 45 minutes from the best skiing in North America, it was 45 minutes from a decent restaurant, too. But that canyon dinner trade was killed in the nineties by the upsurge of first-rate restaurants in town. Metropolitan was opened in 1995 by Christophe Olson in what at the time was a frowsy neighborhood of vagrants and drug dealers. Metropolitan has been run for the last nine years by Olson's sister Karen, who gave up a clinical psychology practice in southern California to manage the place.

We stepped through a curtain into a sophisticated atmosphere of pin spots and banquettes set along the stark cement walls of a former automobile body shop. Our table was in the back by a fireplace. The waitress bore a faint resemblance to Gwyneth Paltrow, which grew more pronounced as a California Pinot took effect. Per state liquor regulations she wore a dog tag around her neck, identifying her as number 88. Miss 88 started us off with an amuse-bouche, a delicious yellowfin tuna tartare in a dainty brioche. "Feel free to use your ?ngers, guys," she said, and then winked at Bill, which was about the point he began planning to move to Salt Lake. "I'll be more geographically desirable," he said. "I think you might be more geographically desirable if you promise to stay in Boston," Blaine said.

Everything about Metropolitan, from Bill's bootless fantasies to the entrées Miss 88 brought out, was a revelation. Roasted elk with rhubarb, toasted farro, and hazelnut; wild king salmon with English peas and a carrot-ginger reduction; coffee-dusted pork tenderloin with citrus-braised fennel and dried fig. It all raised the question: What the hell is a place like this doing here?And never mind how our waitress happened to wash up among the Saints: if she winked at Bill again, he was liable to order a cup of pork-dusted coffee.

Having been knocking around the city for several days, I realized I had only scratched the surface, and I felt I ought to make the case to my out-of-town friends that their time would be just as well spent exploring Salt Lake as it would be skiing. I had recommendations from various informants, including Terry Tempest Williams, the Salt Lake writer and author of Refuge. She had rhapsodized about the Gilgal Sculpture Garden, for example, which had been created by an eccentric Mormon bishop behind the Wonder Bread factory on 400 South. Others were prepossessed by the Avenues district, where the cozy blocks depart from Mormon orthodoxy, or by various micro-neighborhoods: the Nines, at 900 East and 900 South, where there's an indie coffee shop, a record store, a handful of boutiques, and a great lunch spot called Guru; the Fifteens, at 1500 East and 1500 South, where you can find a fantastic bookstore (the King's English Bookshop) and a trio of first-rate restaurants (the Paris, Mazza, and Fresco); Sugarhouse, at 1100 East and 2100 South, a nexus of vintage-clothing stores, a yoga studio, pubs...

"This is a very difficult choice," Tom said. "On one hand we have vintage-clothing stores and a yoga studio, and on the other, we have the best skiing in North America."

Sobered up, we headed to Alta in the morning. We skied all day with my old friend Barbara Dunlea, who has worked for the Alta Lodge for many years. Since I'd been away she'd married. Her husband, John, a former ski patrolman, is a pilot for a rent-a-jet company. They're both demonically fast skiers, of course, and they whisked all over the mountain. Lifts now connect Alta with its neighbor Snowbird, and you can buy one pass for both areas—a phenomenally vast landscape of bowls and chutes and sweeping groomed trails. But other than the new link, Alta is a resort where the more things change elsewhere, the more they stay the same. No snowboards. No frilly facilities. And no crowds. Just the best snow in the country. And it took us only 45 minutes to get back to the city.

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