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Insider: Salt Lake City

Utah's capital goes global this month when it plays host to the XIX Winter Olympic Games, which some say was as unlikely as the Vatican sponsoring the Super Bowl. More than 2,000 athletes from 80 countries are descending on this sprawling urban center at the base of the Wasatch Range for 21/2 weeks of skiing, skating, bobsledding, and other competitions. Who knew a place renowned for rugged cowboy conservatism and Mormon family values could be so much fun?In fact, Salt Lake (locals leave off the City) has been defrosting its reputation for some time, opening several stylish hotels and restaurants, even loosening its liquor laws in anticipation of an Olympic-sized throng.

SLC Hotels
If he built it, would they come?That was oilman Earl Holding's gamble in creating the 775-room Grand America Hotel (555 S. Main St.; 800/621-4505 or 801/258-6000, fax 801/258-6911; doubles from $225), which towers over Salt Lake's modest skyline in an incongruous Vegas-style glitzfest: 650,000 square feet of Carrara marble, handblown chandeliers, antique clocks, and 17th-century French tapestries. • A more contemporary look enlivens the Hotel Monaco (15 W. 200 South; 801/595-0000; doubles from $159), with its 225 candy-colored rooms—licorice red-and-black headboards, pistachio ice cream walls—and a young, tech-savvy crowd amping up the downtown vibe at the adjacent bar-restaurant Bambara. • The canopy beds and oversized tubs at the Peery Hotel (110 W. Broadway; 800/331-0073 or 801/521-4300, fax 801/364-3295; doubles from $79) recall the robber baron Old West. • For a more intimate retreat, check into the Wolfe Krest (273 N.E. Capitol St.; 801/521-8710, fax 801/531-0522; doubles from $150), owned by Kay Malone, wife of Utah Jazz basketball star Karl Malone. This Victorian bed-and-breakfast overlooking the state capitol and nearby canyons has 13 opulent suites, many with a whirlpool tub and fireplace.

Everything Under the Sundance
Robert Redford, with his ubiquitous Sundance brand (the resort, institute, film festival, cable channel, mail-order catalogue, and Zoom, a down-home Park City eatery), has kept an environmental eye on the area. This year's Winter Games have been dubbed the Green Olympics, and under the Sundance Kid's scrutiny the IOC has established programs for intensive recycling, composting, and replanting. The latest eco-insistent venture is the Spa at Sundance (North Fork, Provo Canyon; 800/892-1600 or 801/223-4270), with indulgently wholesome treatments like neroli-flower body scrubs and honey-oatmeal wraps in indigenous Navajo blankets.

Wide-Open Spaces
The Olympic opening and closing ceremonies will take place in Salt Lake proper (as will the medal presentations), but most events are spread over a huge swath of the Wasatch Range. Don't know your way around?Residents like to describe the region as resembling an open hand. S.L.C. rests in the palm, which also cradles the suburbs of Sandy (the terminus of a recently constructed light-rail transit system) and Kearns (site of the speed-skating competition). Four fingers splay off into canyons—Parleys, (which leads to Park City for the giant slalom, downhill, and snowboarding events), Millcreek, Big Cottonwood, and Little Cottonwood.

Restaurants
All glass, stone, and brushed metal, the sleek Metropolitan (173 W. Broadway; 801/364-3472; dinner for two $90) has welcomed Sundance Film Festival celebs like Gwyneth Paltrow and Kiefer Sutherland. This month, it'll be even harder to get a table when the sports media take over—NBC anchor Bob Costas is a fan of its trendy multi-culti cuisine. • An alum of restaurants in L.A., Seattle, and Dallas, renowned chef Scott Blackerby now reigns over the lively open kitchen at Bambara (202 S. Main St.; 801/363-5454; dinner for two $60), dishing out eclectic offerings such as carpaccio of buffalo and tea-cured duck. • Eager for a French fix?Head to the Sugarhouse neighborhood, where just-opened L'Avenue (1355 E. 2100 South; 801/485-4494; dinner for two $50) serves Gallic classics in a building with fixtures imported from a bistro in France. • At the romantically rustic Log Haven (four miles up Millcreek Canyon; 801/272-8255; dinner for two $75) the focus is on the food, such as the heavenly hazelnut rendered duck confit on toasted wheatberries with huckleberry—chestnut reduction.

Nightlife
Cheering on your favorite winter athletes is frosty work. Bartenders at Kristauf's (16 W. Market St.; 801/366-9490) can build an eight-glass martini fountain to keep away the chill. • The bar at the upscale Baci Trattoria (136 W. Pierpont Ave.; 801/328-1500) brings big-city luxe with its glam décor and even more glamorous crowd. • Fans of live music dig the Zephyr Club (301 S.W. Temple St.; 801/355-1506; dinner for two $60), a Deco-era palace favored by local songwriters. • You can't miss ex—New Yorker Joe Pitti—he's the tan, bald guy in a sea of blonds—at his eponymous Cup of Joe (353 W. 200 South; 801/363-8322), a coffee bar/gallery/groovy community center where you'll find jazz divas, club kids, and rock climbers mingling at art openings and poetry slams.

Guilty Pleasures
The microbrewery phenomenon, long past its prime in other cities, is still thriving in Salt Lake. Red Rock Brewing Co. (254 S. 200 West; 801/521-7446) is an after-work hot spot, attracting young scenesters to its chrome-and-glass-walled vats. • Just across the street, in the loftlike Marmot Mesa Brewery & Ale House (163 W. Pierpont Ave.; 801/994-2802), the suds flow freely till the wee hours—or at least till 1 a.m., when bars must close. • Desert Edge Brewery (273 Trolley Square; 801/521-8917), housed in the former streetcar depot, pokes fun at the city's byzantine, Mormon-influenced drinking laws, naming its best-seller "Latter Days Stout."

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