SALT LAKE CITY — The art of bartending, Matthew Pfohl says, is all about the performance, the subtle dance of bottle and glass.
Over his career, this virtuoso of the high-end pour has dazzled customers, effortlessly grabbing a top-shelf gin, say Bombay Sapphire, and making a delicate decant to create another liquid masterpiece.
But in Utah, his act takes place backstage. He mixes drinks out of view in the kitchen, one result of strict regulations governing alcohol and backed by the politically powerful Mormon Church.
Throughout the state, home to some of the nation’s most restrictive drinking laws, restaurants opened after 2009 cannot legally mix cocktails or snap open bottles of beer in front of diners. Such adult fare, the strategy goes, should be kept from the view of impressionable children who might be eating with their parents.
The Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints says Utah’s laws reflect local mores and notes that some states have dry counties that ban alcohol entirely.
But now some people here want the so-called Zion Curtain torn down.
A bill introduced this year would permit restaurants with bars to prepare alcoholic drinks in public view and allow customers to order a cocktail without first declaring their intention to eat. Critics insist that such laws stymie Salt Lake City’s otherwise flourishing culinary scene and slow the growth of the state’s $7.4 billion tourism industry.
“Customers want to see you mix their drink,” said Pfohl, 28, beverage manager at Pallet, an intimate downtown eatery. “How do they know I’m not replacing their favorite alcohol with an inferior brand?”
Byzantine alcohol laws enacted at the end of Prohibition, critics say, give the Beehive State a reputation as out-of-touch fuddy-duddies. The laws limit the alcohol content in beer to 3.2 percent — less than the typical 5 percent — and require restaurants to derive no more than 30 percent of their sales from alcohol. Stiff drinks are also verboten here, with bars and restaurants required to use meters to avoid over-pours.
State law once forbade bars as well as restaurants from dispensing alcohol in the same area where it was stored. Bartenders dashed behind a barrier to prepare a drink. The requirement was dropped for bars in 2009 but still applies to restaurants opened since then.
At Pallet, set in the historic loading dock area of the city’s first creamery, Pfohl and other bartenders must mix drinks at a tiny makeshift counter inside the cramped kitchen, negotiating swinging doors to serve a drink and resume broken-off chats with customers.
State Rep. Kraig Powell (R), who co-authored the Zion Curtain bill, represents the ski resort town of Park City, site of the annual Sundance Film Festival, where many filmmakers view the state’s drinking laws as something akin to a covered wagon parked in a lot full of Maseratis.
Opponents are rallying against Powell’s legislation. The LDS church posted on its Web site a lengthy multimedia policy statement urging lawmakers to uphold the current alcohol restrictions, with a high-ranking church official stressing that the laws are “closely tied to the moral culture of the state.”
His tone grandfatherly, D. Todd Christofferson, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the second-highest governing body in the church, says: “It’s very important that we avoid an alcohol culture.”
The church’s statement was timed to the recent start of Utah’s 45-day legislative session. The church bans alcohol use among its faithful; those who do drink are forbidden to worship in temples.
In an interview at the church’s downtown headquarters, Michael Purdy quietly folded his hands and said that liberalizing the liquor laws was simply not good for Utah.
The director for government and strategic relations said stricter laws cut down on teenage drinking and drunken driving. The church’s Web site shows that in 2012, Utah had the nation’s lowest number of alcohol-related traffic deaths per capita.
“The evidence supports our claim that things are working just fine the way they are,” Purdy said.
The church wanted to make sure its stance on alcohol was clear, he said. “There are a lot of members of our faith in Utah, and so our voice carries influence,” Purdy said. “That makes us doubly sensitive as to when we speak up on an issue.”
Mormons form a majority of Utah’s Legislature (some estimates say 85 percent) and three-fourths of the state’s nearly 3 million residents. But some Mormon lawmakers, along with LDS restaurant owners, want the laws loosened.
“We’re here in the worldwide headquarters of the Mormon faith, questioning its edicts,” said Ryan Wilcox, a 36-year-old state representative and member of the LDS church — a cellphone salesman with an easygoing style who calls his political intern “dude.” “I have an allegiance to my faith, but my job is to act on what I think is right.”