Meanwhile, a crop of lavish hotels has opened recently. Above all is the eye-popping 775-room Grand America, opened last March on the south side of town. Salt Lake City billionaire Earl Holding, who also owns Sinclair Oil and the Sun Valley ski resort in Idaho, supervised construction of his Grand America down to the last detail, even breaking open crates of white granite for the exterior walls that had been quarried in Vermont and shaped in Spain. In a city where the average room rate was $76 last year, prices at the Grand America may seem high. But where else in the country can you get a huge, luxurious chamber with French doors, mountain views and an Italian marble bath for $185 a night during the week and $129 on weekends?
About a year ago the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints completed a modernistic conference center just north of Temple Square, with a smashing 21,000-seat auditorium and roof garden. Salt Lake City even has a hip neighborhood, the warehouse district, where galleries, trendy restaurants, brew pubs, theaters and architectural firms stretch along 300 South Street from West Temple Street to Pioneer Park.
It's a real city now, with all the good and bad that entails, including homeless people and a hint of urban cynicism. I asked almost everyone I met what they would do during the Olympics. Most rolled their eyes and said they planned to avoid the crowds by staying home and watching the Games on TV.
I got here on a Thursday afternoon. The sky had already turned a vague shade of blue, and the temperature was nudging freezing. The descending plane yielded a view of a city like the kingdom of a snow queen. I stayed three nights at the 225-room Hotel Monaco, which opened in 1999 in an old bank building at Main Street and 200 South and is part of a small chain of boutique hotels headquartered in San Francisco. It serves free wine in the lobby at cocktail hour and has a kind of "Alice in Wonderland" decor, where checks and stripes live together and you'll find the occasional nutty piece of furniture, like the red canopied settee in the lobby. My ninth-floor room ($129 a night) was the size of a suite. It had a plush king-size bed, robes and Aveda toiletries, contemporary prints on the walls, lots of lamps, sterling sunrise views over the Wasatch mountains and, most important, a coffee maker with a Starbucks brew pack.
I went downstairs to Bambara Restaurant and ordered a Belvedere martini, on the rocks with olives. Alcohol is readily available in Salt Lake City restaurants and private clubs (which are like bars, except that customers must pay a cover charge of about $5 or find a sponsor who already has a membership to get a drink).
Still, teetotaler laws supported by Mormon church members make imbibing in Salt Lake City an odd experience. The martini came in a pretty fluted glass, but was heavy on the vermouth and minuscule besides; by law, Salt Lake City bartenders can't make drinks with more than one ounce of liquor and must use a dispenser to make sure of it. The waiter brought me a wine list along with the menu. (Technically, restaurants were forbidden to do so unless the customer asks, but a court recently struck down this law.) I ordered a glass of Chardonnay with my seafood stew. When it came, the waiter sheepishly told me I had to finish my cocktail before he could serve the wine, because regulations dictate that each diner have only one drink on the table at a time.
The fish stew was chock-full of lobster, shrimp and calamari, a testament to the landlocked city's yearning for seafood--and to its gourmet awakening. Known once upon a time for "funeral potatoes" (an easy-to-make, frighteningly rich potluck favorite) and Jell-O (which the Utah legislature last year proclaimed the state's official snack food), Salt Lake City cooking has started to come of age.
Chic new restaurants serving sophisticated cuisine and modest places specializing in ethnic fare--Vietnamese, Italian, Mexican--compete with old standards like Lamb's Grill Cafe, where Mormon comfort food tops the menu.
After dinner I walked up West Temple Street to Maurice Abravanel Concert Hall to hear the Utah Symphony perform Vivaldi and Respighi. The numbered streets, laid out in a grid emanating from Temple Square, were virtually empty but didn't feel threatening. The concert hall is a handsome contemporary building at the north side of Salt Palace Convention Center, decorated with several garishly illuminated glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly (part of a big Chihuly exhibit in the Salt Lake Art Center next door, through March 17). The decor of the wood-lined concert hall is far more low-key, and the symphony, conducted by Keith Lockhart, played beautifully.