This famed bar transforms into a restaurant — and the garlic burgers are back

Cotton Bottom Inn opened Thursday after a monthslong remodel

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jeff Barnard, co-owner of Holladay’s iconic Cotton Bottom Inn, which has been closed for about a year, talks about some of the additions that have been made to the place, including a to-go window on the side of the building and an additional outdoor patio area with plans for more.

Holladay • One of Salt Lake County’s most popular dive bars is no longer a dive — or a bar.

The Cotton Bottom Inn — which opened Thursday after undergoing a monthslong remodel — has a shiny new kitchen, fresh paint and updated bathrooms and floors.

The electrical, plumbing and heating systems now meet 21st-century standards, and the dead branches and undergrowth that kept the one-level building hidden have been torn out and replaced with appealing gravel and ivy landscaping.

There’s one more major change for the iconic eatery, on the corner of 6200 South and Holladay Boulevard: It’s now an all-ages restaurant, not a beer-only tavern for those 21 and older.

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Regulars can thank — or curse — the pandemic for that, said Jeff Barnard of the Bar X Group, which purchased the business last year from Holladay City.

“Initially, we were going to enlarge the kitchen and add a dining room for families,” he said. “But we had to cancel that when the pandemic hit because indoor dining is not what people want right now.”

The co-owners — who also own Salt Lake City’s Bar X and Beer Bar — scaled back their plans, deciding instead to just restore the tavern. In the process, they added several large outdoor patios with heaters and installed a walk-up window on the east side of the building for to-go orders placed through the restaurant’s new online system.

The Bar X Group consists of four extended family members, the most famous of whom is actor and Utah resident Ty Burrell — best known as the goofy dad on “Modern Family.”

The group took over Bar X in 2011, opened Beer Bar in 2014 and purchased The Eating Establishment in Park City in 2016. Their track record of taking beloved Utah businesses and enhancing them is one of the reasons Holladay sold Cotton Bottom to the group.

To meet the state’s coronavirus health restrictions, there are no stools at the original wooden bar and the old tables (with new chairs and benches) are set 6 feet apart. That means the usual 49-seat capacity has been cut in half, said Barnard.

The pool table and the rotating beer light are still part of the decor, and the new owners have added several other vintage beer signs to the walls. Earlier this year, the blue and yellow rabbit sign was restored and now has working lights for the first time in 60 years.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Vintage signs adorn the inside of Holladay’s iconic Cotton Bottom Inn, which has been closed for about a year, as it gets ready to open to the public on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020.

There are other firsts, too, said Barnard. With its restaurant liquor license from the state, customers can order wine and cocktails (not just beer) with their food.

And — this is important — the menu now has fries.

There also are healthier food options including a meat-free burger, two salads and the popular skier’s chili from The Eating Establishment.

Those are some major shifts for the no-frills tavern that attracts locals and tourists hungry for food and fellowship after a day of skiing in the Cottonwood Canyons.

One thing that hasn’t changed are the garlic cheeseburgers.

They are still made the same way, with the same ingredients and by the same person — Stacy Chlepas Holst. She has been cooking at the Cotton Bottom for more than two decades and was hired by the new owners to co-manage the restaurant with another veteran, Caty Fetzer.

“This is my entire legacy,” said a teary-eyed Holst. “Seeing it come back to life is emotional.”

Holst is the granddaughter of Helen Chlepas, who purchased the bar in 1966 from Dewain Nelson, who should get all the credit for creating the Cotton Bottom’s famed garlic cheeseburgers, said Holst.

“He started it and my grandmother continued it,” Holst said. “I don’t think she changed a thing on the original menu.”

This important fact in the Cotton Bottom legacy has been overlooked in recent decades, but the Bar X Group is working to fix that.

News about the purchase and remodeling put the new owners in contact with Dewain and Tacoma “T” Nelson’s two sons, Gary and Mark — who are now 83 and 72, respectively.

The Nelsons shared early memories — and their black and white photos — of the Cotton Bottom Inn. Copies of the historical pieces now hang on the wall near the kitchen.

“Dewain purchased The Cotton Bottom Inn in 1952 and ran it until around 1956,” Gary Nelson’s wife Carolee wrote in an email to The Tribune. “Dewain,” she added, “is the one who made the first garlic burger.”

Dewain then leased the business to Helen Chlepas in 1966 so he could open the Canyon Inn, near the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon, said Mark Nelson.

The retired rancher, now living in Boulder, Utah, is too young to have memories of the Cotton Bottom Inn. “Except for the outdoor sign,” he said. “It was there as far back as I can remember.”

Barnard said the Nelson brothers and their families will be part of a grand opening in April, an outdoor event that will celebrate the history of a quintessential neighborhood eatery — ready to take on a few more decades.