When Tamara Gibo, who has owned and operated the restaurant Takashi in downtown Salt Lake City with her husband since 2004, was looking for ideas for the space next door, she started thinking about the neighbors.
Across Market Street is the Frank E. Moss U.S. Courthouse, one of the oldest buildings in the Exchange Place Historic District — built between 1903 and 1917. Besides being a courthouse, the building once housed a post office.
A post office is “a place where things from around the world are constantly coming in and out of,” said Richard Romney, general manager of Post Office Place, a bar at 16 W. Market St. “So that’s kind of how we think of things here.”
Gibo and Romney designed the bar from the ground up, including vintage mailboxes and granite to match the courthouse across the street. Art and wood tables, both produced locally, add to the strong design.
The team behind Post Office Place, including executive chef Brendan Kawakami and beverage director Crystal Daniels, have roots in Salt Lake City. Romney was born and raised in the city, and Gibo and her husband have lived in Salt Lake City for more than 30 years.
The four of them have come together to offer a bar experience unique to Salt Lake City — and one that has received national recognition. In late January, the James Beard Foundation announced the semifinalists for its prestigious James Beard Awards, and Post Office Place was one of 20 businesses from around the country named in the “outstanding bar” category. Finalists will be announced in March.
The recognition comes to a bar that has been open less than five years — a span that included the years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The bar opened in July 2018, envisioned as a place where people could enjoy a cocktail while waiting for their table at Takashi next door. The bar saw gradual growth through the winter and into 2019.
Then, in March 2020, everything came to a standstill with the spread of COVID-19.
“It made it kind of hard, because when you start getting momentum, and things are picking up, it feeds off of itself,” Gibo said. “Then to have that big break, it made all the momentum come to a screeching halt.”
When bars and restaurants went into lockdown, Post Office Place brought in some revenue by making non-alcoholic cocktail mixers, and by selling sushi. The bar’s regulars continued to come in, which helped the bar’s growth.
“When we reopened, we had to start over from square one again, rebuilding a regular clientele,” Daniels said.
As the lockdown eased, and people began to venture out more, Post Office Place continued to carve out its own place on Salt Lake City’s growing bar scene.
The bar boasts a curated liquor list, with unique products not available at any other bar in Salt Lake City. The bar has an extensive whiskey collection and has even had a house-label whiskey.
The bar specializes in Japanese liquor products. Daniels took a research trip to Seattle, where she discovered how difficult it is to find shōchū, a distilled spirit popular in Japan. Today, Daniels said she believes Post Office Place has one of the country’s larger selections of shōchū.
The aim for Post Office Place, Romney said, was to let the staff do what they love to do, and create a place where they would like to go. “We felt like we were missing something [in Salt Lake City],” he said.
On the January day when the James Beard Awards semifinalists were announced, the four bar leaders saw their phones explode with text messages and calls from friends and regulars. Daniels said she was asleep when she heard the news.
Romney called the James Beard recognition humbling. “We’ve always been proud of what we’ve done, but this just kind of backs that up for us,” Romney said. “We never set out to do this, we’re just very passionate people, and the four of us are very passionate about every aspect of what we’re doing. Providing good service, which isn’t always the case at bars. Providing a unique food menu that you can’t find anywhere else, unique cocktails and spirits.”
The recognition, Romney said, was proof that people were noticing the work being put into the bar — the all-day preparation for the evening service, and the time spent on the menu and cocktails.
“I think our program is amazing, and I’ve always felt that way,” Daniels said. “The James Beard award was so surprising, I think, because I always thought it went to larger markets like New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle.”
Since the James Beard announcement, Romney said Post Office Place has seen a massive boost in demand, around 40%. There are nights, he said, when people are standing around the bar waiting for a table. There hasn’t been a slow night since late January, and they’re not hoping for any.
The James Beard announcement also shows that Utah’s growing bar and restaurant scene is beginning to receive more attention.
“Having that much growth in our city is helpful, because it lets us do what we want to do,” said Gibo. “We don’t have to appeal to the masses, we just have to appeal to the ones that are looking for what we provide.”
Where there used to be a perception that there are few options in the Salt Lake bar scene, now there are numerous choices — arcade bars, bars with live music and DJs, places with a more relaxed vibe, and more.
Daniels said that when people ask her where to go after having a drink at Post Office Place, now her first response is to ask what kind of experience people are looking for.
Gibo said the future for Post Office Place will depend on what inspires them. The team recently sent Daniels to Oaxaca, Mexico, to visit the Wahaka Mezcal facility to personally select a barrel that is now being served as the bar’s house label.
“We’ll try to kind of expand along those lines and see what keeps us excited, because if we’re not excited then we’re not going to excite anybody else,” Gibo said.