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Mystery of a speakeasy now in Salt Lake City
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The Bodega at 331 S. Main St. is part convenience store, part tavern stocked with empanadas, beer and prayer candles that are sold over a counter layered in Playboy covers. But that's not the only reason customers — including visiting celebrities — want to be there.

What they really seek can only be found through the unmarked gray door, which is disguised as a restroom and requires a special key. The door leads to the basement and gives way to a dining sanctuary — albeit one filled with taxidermy.

This Salt Lake City restaurant is meant to be discovered, so we won't tell you the name or spoil the surprise. But the style is unexpected, detailed and sexy, according to its owner Sara Lund.

The 31-year-old wanted to import the popular speakeasy restaurants from her adopted town of New York City to Utah, where she was raised.

"It was something that when I moved to New York, it was part of the food scene. Being able to get into something like that and take your friends — it was this whole new level of prestige," said Lund, who has a background in business consulting for fashion retailers and boutique hotels.

Her muse was New York's La Esquina, which serves food at a walk-in cafe that's also a front for a subterranean dining room. Former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni described the restaurant as "sort of like Studio 54 with chipotle subbing for cocaine."

Lund planned to spend hardly any money on the space that would be the front to her secret business. But then she realized it could be a legitimate, if irreverent, business, too. Bodega business cards show an image of Jesus holding an empanada and 40-ounce Negra Modelo.

She added a standing-room-only tavern, which sells an IPA — made by Squatters — called El Borracho, or "the drunkard."

Lund is unapologetic about the décor, upstairs and down. The Playboy covers (and centerfolds pasted in the wheelchair-accessible elevator) and giant moose heads may offend, but she filled her place with things she loves. That includes several installations by local artist Jake Buntjer, who created a panel of sculptures made from found objects. The pieces decorate the back of the bar downstairs.

Buntjer is a storyteller, but won't divulge the tale of the dark panels. Diners are supposed to figure it out on their own, over several visits.

The restaurant is "the perfect place for my work," said Buntjer. "One of the comments I hear when I'm in there is it feels comfortable. … They really don't want to leave."

Lund said singers David Byrne and Annie Clark of St. Vincent and their crew closed the restaurant down after Monday's sold-out concert at Red Butte Garden. And actress Katie Holmes, who was in town filming the movie "Mania Days," also was a guest.

Viet Pham, co-owner of Salt Lake City's Forage and TV Food Network star, has snacked at the restaurant and praised the vibe. "You think it's going to be some obscure basement and boom! it's this really fantastic space," he said, adding that he liked the sweet and sour chicken wings, shaved so the bone is exposed and can be handled like a lollipop.

The restaurant includes a library, meant for sipping craft cocktails overseen by Caleb Cannon while munching on barbecue caramel popcorn ($6) or those wings.

Lund calls the menu "mountain food" and it's reminiscent of eating around a campfire. There's the "Hobo" trout, served over cauliflower in tin foil shaped like a swan ($18). Or the moist honey-glazed beer can chicken, roasted whole sitting on a can of Pabst ($35 for two) and served with warm potato salad.

"It's taking familiar foods and classing them up, but keeping the quirkiness that makes it familiar," said Lund, who asked a New York chef friend to develop the menu, which is now overseen by local Matt Serna.

Lund is hopeful the food, atmosphere and staff will create regulars, even after the secret is out.

But she also knows the exclusivity — knowing how to get a reservation and a key — will be a draw.

"People always want what they can't have," she said. "It's a place for the rest of us. It's not for everyone."

hmay@sltrib.com

Dining behind Bodega

Salt Lake City has a new secret restaurant that's meant to be discovered.

Where • 331 S. Main St., Salt Lake City

Details • bodega331.com

Dining • Behind the Bodega, an unexpected dining experience awaits.
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