Editor's note • In this regular series, The Salt Lake Tribune explores the once-favorite places of Utahns, from restaurants to recreation to retail. If you have a spot you'd like us to explore, email email@example.com with your ideas.
Most nights, the air was thick with cigarette smoke, but the musical energy was thicker. A crowd of 50 sounded like 200, and a crowd of 200 still felt like being with your closest friends.
The hordes that packed into the small club saw national acts like Morrissey and Warren Zevon but also gushed over local groups like the Disco Drippers.
Now, memories of The Zephyr Club are bittersweet: Its life was cut short by a dispute over the property, at the corner of 300 South and West Temple, that ended with the venerated venue sitting empty and rotting for the past 12 years.
The beginning of greatness • The Zephyr Club's magic was sort of an accident; owner Otto Mileti had planned a dinner club with a TGI Fridays feel. But in the first three nights, the musicians accompanying dinner stole the show, and it was clear The Zephyr was "made to be a live music venue," Mileti said.
"After a couple years of having a tiny dance floor, we decided to go with it, cut the bar in half and shoved it against the back wall and started what really was The Zephyr Club," he said.
A mix of factors made The Zephyr special, including a stellar lineup 364 days a year and a sound system that impressed even the artists.
When it opened at 6 or 7 at night, a line of people would be waiting to fill its tile floor and leopard-print seats. Inside, a staircase led up to a balcony, where people could watch the music — or the crowd — and grab a drink from a second bar. Pillars stretched to the ceiling, and the walls were lined with photos of musicians who'd played on The Zephyr stage — the focal point of the club, which could fit just 350.
Coming into the club, "everyone made a grand entrance bec-ause you walked in right by the stage. Most clubs are just the opposite," Mileti said.
"There is no great live music venue like The Zephyr. It was the perfect layout," said former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson.
Craig Cleveland, guitarist and vocalist for regular Zephyr act the Disco Drippers, said the venue had a certain poetry. "There was a feeling of, 'I'm in a place where music should be experienced.' You knew you were in for something special ... something privileged," he said.
Many bars in the current scene want to be known for music and craft cocktails and poker and brunch and sports. The Zephyr had one focus.
"It wasn't a multipurpose bar," said Gil Sanchez, who worked as The Zephyr's doorman for 10 years, up until it closed. "The best part of The Zephyr was the music — they didn't have to advertise anything else."
Or really provide anything else, beyond drinks and a welcoming attitude. By the time Sanchez started in 1993, the kitchen — a final remnant of The Zephyr's birth as a restaurant — was long gone.
Sound, check • Concertgoer Felicia Barrett said The Zephyr had "such an intimate feeling. ... It was a special opportunity to see any performer there."
Bluegrass might have edged out other genres at The Zephyr, Sanchez said, but musicians of all stripes graced its stage — from The Young Dubliners to De La Soul to pre-ubiquity Maroon 5.
Thus the crowd was a vibrant mix of Americana-loving regulars, locals and out-of-town visitors who'd either heard of the club or were struck by an unexpected name — Cheap Trick, Emmylou Harris, Peter Frampton — on The Zephyr's glowing marquee.
"I don't know how many times I heard, 'Wow, we were just walking by and saw that there's this great band playing,' " Sanchez said.
And those great bands wanted to play The Zephyr, he said. "Everybody heard that the sound was so good. And the customers were so good. That made it, too — there was always so much positive feedback."
When Sheryl Crow — who played The Zephyr during the Salt Lake City Olympics — hit her first note during sound check, she said, "Wow, this is amazing," Sanchez recalled.
During Ben Folds' show, he got up and danced on his piano, which his manager told Mileti he'd never seen him do before.
Famous keyboardist Bernie Worrell played The Zephyr at age 64. Mileti says Worrell's wife, Judie, told him it was "the best we've ever been treated."
It was a destination even for musicians that weren't booked to play there. In November 1996, after a Hootie & the Blowfish concert at what's now EnergySolutions Arena, John Youngren and a friend headed to The Zephyr — where they again saw Darius Rucker and his bandmates.
"Within an hour, there they were, looking for a beer, blowing off some steam after their own show," said Youngren, who works in advertising in Salt Lake City. "It was known among bands as a fun, popular place."
But perhaps no band loved The Zephyr more than the Disco Drippers, a 10-piece group that performed '70s disco music in a '90s grunge style.
Lisa Rodgers, who sang lead vocals for the Drippers, spent her early 20s singing at The Zephyr and dancing in its crowd. "I kind of grew up on that stage," she said.
Wall-to-wall fans went crazy over Drippers' covers of "Play That Funky Music," "I Will Survive" and "Brick House."
"I remember one day when I showed up for sound check at The Zephyr Club and there was a line that stretched down to the Gastronomy restaurant about a half a block away," Rodgers said. "And I thought, 'Who is playing tonight?' It turned out the line was for us."
The Zephyr booked the Disco Drippers one weekend a month for 10 years, which launched the band's popularity and allowed Cleveland the surreal experience of standing where blues guitarist Buddy Guy, one of his musical heroes, once stood.
The benefits were mutual. Zephyr managers told Rodgers that the profits generated from Drippers shows helped them bring in national acts without passing the costs onto patrons.
The most The Zephyr ever charged was a $30 ticket to see Robert Palmer.
That affordability was part of what made it such a focal point of the city. Youngren remembered that "Who's playing at The Zephyr tonight?" was part of any conversation planning a night out.
And there was always foot traffic, Sanchez recalled, with people bouncing between Port O'Call, Zephyr, the Dead Goat and DV8 — all within a few blocks, and all gone now.
The night the music died • In 2003, after 20 years and thousands of shows, Mileti's lease was up. And things at The Zephyr couldn't have been better.
The club was still packed every night and employees rarely left their jobs. "Everybody was like a big family," Sanchez said.
"The Zephyr Club was such an amazing place to work for, because you knew that every show was a new adventure and not like any day you had worked before," remembered Ken Felix on Facebook. Felix and his wife, Julie, worked as managers at The Zephyr from the early days of the club.
The Zephyr also had become a family for the thousands who streamed through its doors each week. So, Mileti decided to take the plunge and buy the property from Zions Bank for $1 million.
But the deal fell through, and the community that had formed around The Zephyr was set adrift. And, some say, an era of Salt Lake City saw its end.