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McEntee: In Utah, it's eat, drink and be wary — and in that order

Published January 12, 2013 11:41 pm

Column • Add another example to Utah's menu of silly liquor laws.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

Francis Liong, owner of Salt Lake City's iconic Lamb's Grill, sounded a bit disheartened when I asked him about Utah's crackdown on serving liquor in a restaurant until after the diner has ordered a meal.

"In a civilized world, when people go out to dine, they want to relax, have a drink and then order," said Liong, a transplant from an upscale restaurant in Beverly Hills, Calif. "Most people don't go to a restaurant for a drink."

Evidently, the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (DABC) doesn't think that's true. And the State Bureau of Investigation has launched an undercover sting campaign that nailed nine restaurants in December alone (a violation can lead to suspended liquor licenses or hefty fines).

This clampdown comes at a time when tens of thousands of people, many with sophisticated tastes and generous expense accounts, will stream into Utah for the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market and the Sundance Film Festival.

Can you say, "lights, camera, reaction?"

Utah law, long-standing but heretofore unknown to many restaurateurs, says diners must order food before they can get a cocktail or a glass of wine. It's a counterintuitive statute, since most patrons — particularly those from out of state — are accustomed to dining in a relaxed mood helped along by a drink before dinner.

And what happens, Liong asked, when Outdoor Retailer attendees reserve a table for 30, and five come in early? Give them a glass of water? Some lemonade?

"It's just bad overall," said Liong, who found out about the law in a DABC holiday newsletter.

Every Utahn who drinks knows how peculiar the state's liquor laws are. You can't buy a cold sixpack of so-called heavy beer at a state store. Prices are far higher here than in other states — a fifth of Stolichnaya vodka, for example, costs twice as much here as in California. All cocktails are metered.

I've pretty much lost hope that Utah lawmakers will one day understand that a cocktail, beer or glass of wine isn't intrinsically dangerous. Certainly some people drink too much or are too young, but most adults don't abuse alcohol. And certainly not by having a drink while perusing a menu.

Finally, state officials work hard to bring in new businesses, and they're very good at it. But for Liong, whose restaurant is just a few blocks from the Outdoor Retailer market, every quirky liquor law is bad for business.

"It's bad for tourists, it's bad for restaurants," he said. "It's bad overall. [Liquor officials] just have to think about the business owners."

And listen to them.

Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at pegmcentee@sltrib.com, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter, @pegmcentee.