As a beer-crazy transplant from Austin, Texas, I was confronted with an immediate and serious problem when I moved to Provo: there was nowhere to drink. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Salt Lake City had its fair share of bars, pubs, gastro-pubs, breweries, and even distilleries, just like any other city, as explained by Jewel Maxfield in her short article. But Utah County is a different story. Demand for alcohol in the area has historically been non-existent, primarily because Utah County was more than 84% LDS in the early 2000s.
But that percentage is dropping due to people like me (sorry y’all). It’s not that native Utah County residents are leaving the LDS church and starting to consume alcohol, it’s that non-Mormons are moving to the area for work, primarily in tech jobs on the “Silicon Slopes” around Lehi. And while we might like a good “Dirty Coke” as much as our neighbors, what we really want at 5pm is a perfectly mixed margarita or an ice cold beer (at more than 4% ABV, thanks).
I could digress into a rant about Utah’s liquor laws and the hardships they impose on law-abiding but booze-loving citizens (for a detailed account of the laws, go here, but what interests me most about the alcohol situation in Utah County is that supply hasn’t yet caught up with increasing demand. Although liquor sales overall have been rising significantly each year, the number of bars hasn’t grown in the area. More and more restaurants are acquiring liquor licenses and passing out drink menus — Black Sheep, Oregano Italian Kitchen, and the newly opened Block Restaurant are good examples—but because of the state’s unusual liquor laws, you can’t treat even a fully liquor-licensed restaurant like a bar: you must order food in order to enjoy a drink. Of all the Utah County bars I’ve found, only one, Strap Tank Brewing, is a new business. The others have been around for quite some time, and they don’t cater to the newly arrived tech crowd from California. They cater to native Utahns who, for whatever reason, were never or are no longer a part of the Mormon majority. The average denizen is, shall we say, grizzled. But as a Texan, I’m not afraid of a dive bar, and I wanted to know a lot more about the drinking scene in this notoriously dry part of America that I now call home. I decided to start in my own area, Orem-Provo, and work my way up and down Utah County from there.
My first stop is ABG’s Libation Emporium (aka Bar), a mainstay of Provo’s walkable Center Street and just blocks from my own house. ABG’s was the first bar I visited in Utah County when we moved here in 2015, and most people would say that it’s a definitive “dive” if there ever was one. ABG’s opens every single day, including Sundays, at 3pm, which is how I started coming here weekly on Wednesdays at 3:30pm. The bar is sparsely populated at this time, and I can enjoy a beer and an hour and a half of uninterrupted reading before heading home for the whirlwind that is dinner and bedtime with a toddler. The other drinkers are an interesting combination that usually includes at least one hardcore alcoholic, a few blue-collar men playing pool and drinking Miller High Life, and often some conference center refugees turned away from Slate Lounge inside the Marriott, which doesn’t open until 5pm (and which I’ll cover later). You needn’t feel awkward walking into ABG’s alone. Of interest to female bar patrons: ABG’s has one of the most comically small women’s bathrooms I have ever seen.
You’re sure to smell this bar before you even see it as you approach on Center Street. The interior is decidedly dank, with lots of unlit corners and not much bar seating. There is a lot of space given over to pool tables, which seem a bit cramped in the long, narrow interior. The problem of ABG’s signature scent is compounded by the fact that the bar serves food: basic fare like burgers, fries, and jalapeno poppers that go well with drinks. There are a few “Utah beers” on tap (4% ABV), and there’s a cooler case of high-gravity beers including crowd-pleasing favorites like Blue Moon along with a few strong IPAs and imported beers. They always have Uinta’s Hop Nosh IPA, which is my go-to order. Lots of patrons opt for tequila shots and light beer, but the cocktail menu at ABG’s is also a big draw. It changes often and typically includes four extremely sweet and saucily named drinks ranging from about $4 to $8. Recent options have included a “Wet My Willy” (whipped cream-flavored vodka and Southern Host topped off with cranberry juice) and the “LA Water” (vodka, gin, blue Curacao, and sour mix). Some of the cocktail names aren’t quite fit to print. I cannot recommend ordering anything more complex than a gin and tonic at ABG’s, and I personally stick to the bottled beers.
Bartenders will tell you that ABG’s has been open for about 30 years, and that the location has housed a bar for over 100 years. I haven’t been able to verify this claim; City Limits Tavern also claims to be the oldest running bar locale in Provo, with a bar operating on the premises since 1946. ABG’s is currently owned by Gary Whiting, a former LDS church member, but he has owned the spot for fewer than ten years, and saw it have its most profitable weekend ever in September of 2017 (the link also includes some good interior photos of ABG’s). On weekends, the bar often hosts live music, and bands play in the rear of the space. It can become too loud to have a conversation at these times, but they seem to keep the usual jukebox volume relatively low.
190 W Center St, Provo, UT 84601
As of today, Slate Lounge is the nicest spot you can get a drink without a meal in downtown Provo. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite count as a local bar because it’s part of the downtown Marriott hotel. Leaving that aside, it’s an attractive and comfortable space with a decent selection and good service. Slate Lounge is in the bottom level of the Marriott, most easily accessible from the entrance on 100 N. They validate parking if you want to use the hotel’s garage, but I have had issues with their parking tokens not working in the past and prefer to park in the street at 100 W, where Marley’s Sliders used to be located.
You’ll see signs posted about how far away from the bar you’re allowed to carry your drink, and the rules are enforced. Luckily, while the bar can get a little crowded if there’s a conference in town, I’ve never had trouble finding an alcohol-permitted table or a seat at the large granite bar. Two televisions behind the bartenders are usually showing sports, and the atmosphere is casual, quiet, and comfortable. The bar menu includes a full range of beer, wine, and liquor, plus food from Slate Restaurant next door. I have yet to eat anything here, but the cuisine is American food at slightly elevated prices.
The drink prices are elevated, too, rivaling those at The Owl Bar up at Sundance (see below). The cocktail menu tries to get creative, but I can’t recommend any of the in-house creations; like most cocktails in this area, they tend to be aggressively sweet and, of course, a little light on the alcohol. One of the most popular drinks that I see crossing the bar here is some sort of chocolate martini, with syrup drizzled around the interior of the glass. The bartenders make a serviceable, if miniature, martini, and can whip up mixed drinks like Sazeracs, Negronis, and more, especially if you’re able to provide some guidance about the components of your favorite drink.
The best thing about Slate Lounge is its anonymity. You may be in downtown Provo, but you could be drinking a beer in a nice hotel bar anywhere in the country once you’re sitting here. This can be a welcome change for Provo residents who may be feeling fed up with their city’s limitations.
101 W 100 N, Provo, UT 84601
The Owl Bar is only technically a Provo location. It’s at the Sundance Resort, about 10 miles up Provo Canyon on Alpine Loop Scenic Byway. It’s where you go when you don’t mind the drive, or how much you’ll pay for drinks, and you want to feel like you’re not quite in Utah anymore. We came here a lot when we first moved to the area, but have hardly driven up in the past year or more. For one thing, I prefer to give my booze money to places that are trying to make alcohol accessible to locals, and the Owl Bar definitely caters to tourists. They don’t need our money to stay in business.
The spot has some other distinct downsides, in my opinion. They have fantastic outdoor seating that we enjoy in the summer, but they won’t serve you, even outdoors, even if you order food, if you have a child with you. And in this case, “child” can mean “sleeping infant.” I’m sure this is another Utah alcohol law problem, but it’s nonetheless irritating when the atmosphere feels so family friendly; this is not at all a dark dive bar that smells of stale smoke. Because the Owl Bar caters to tourists, their hours can be inhospitable to local drinkers. During the ski season they open at 3pm on most days, but off-season they’re frquently closed or not open until 5pm. Although live music is a plus to many bar patrons, I personally find it intolerable in close quarters, and the Owl Bar can be a deafening nightmare when they’re hosting a band on the weekends. If you prefer to talk while you drink, don’t come here on a Friday or Saturday.
All of that said, the Owl Bar makes excellent cocktails and offers delicious bar snacks. Prices are comparable to those at Slate Lounge for food and drinks, and the menu is much more sophisticated. Our favorite items are the fried pickles and homemade potato chips; if you want to order a real dinner, you’re better off heading into the Foundry Grill, since the bar’s entree options are quite limited. Their beer selection focuses on local bottles and drafts, but you can also purchase a good Belgian beer and some imported lagers. Their best cocktail by far is one called the “Spicy Steve,” which includes gin, hot sauce, and cucumber. Other highlights are the Moscow mule and their Utah take on a Black & Tan: Wasatch Polygamy Porter and Uinta Cutthroat Pale Ale. The bartenders here are good at making drinks that don’t taste like the booze was carefully measured.
8841 Alpine Loop Scenic Byway, Sundance UT, 84604
Back in downtown Provo on Center Street is City Limits Tavern, claiming to be the city’s oldest bar (at least in modern memory). The location used to be called Harold’s Lounge, and was apparently opened for business in 1946. Information about the business’ history is thin, but try a quick Google: Harold’s Lounge gets several mentions in Provo’s Daily Herald throughout the past several decades, usually as the place various perpetrators were drinking prior to committing their crimes. Aside from its age, City Limits has a couple of other distinguishing features: the bar opens at noon every single day of the week, three hours earlier than ABG’s, and it considers itself a gay bar, or at least a gay-friendly bar. City Limits hosts weekly drag shows, and was a central location for Provo Pride events this past year.
I had never been to City Limits before I started this article, so my first visit was a reconnaissance mission with a gay male friend who had also never ventured inside. Although by most standards both ABG’s and City Limits would be considered dives, City Limits surprised me with some stark differences from its counterpart down the street. When we walked in we were greeted only with the faint smell of disinfectant, no musty cigarette smells or scents of stale fryer oil. No one stopped us at the door to card us before we even glanced at the beverage selection. The interior was well-lit, with no shadowy corners and no spots for dirt to hide, and the bar stretched far along one wall, with plenty of space for sitting, standing, and mingling nearby. I immediately had the impression of a cleaner, more comfortable space, and knew instantly that I had found my new “local.”
The clientele at City Limits is more varied than I expected. It has its fair share of regulars: local men and women who come to socialize with each other, play pool at the two tables, or use the video game machines that sit against the walls. Although there have been single men in the bar every time I have gone, City Limits doesn’t seem like a very active pick-up spot: a fair number of customers are just sitting quietly with their drinks, making for a very comfortable atmosphere. There are often a couple of gay men from out of town, pleased and surprised to find a gay bar in Provo, Utah. The end of the bar closest to the door seems to be the place to sit if you want to chat, whereas the far end is usually occupied by quiet solo drinkers or pairs who just want to catch up with each other. There is a jukebox, which can get fairly loud, but I didn’t have trouble talking with my drinking partner on any of my three visits.
City Limits has a smaller liquor selection than ABG’s, but a better selection of beers, including some seasonal high-gravity options from local breweries like Uinta and Squatters. The drink menu has much more in common with ABG’s than with the high-end offerings of the Owl Bar or Slate Lounge, but the prices reflect that. Cocktails are inexpensive and bottled beers are priced a little lower than most spots in the area. On one visit we ordered two cocktails, two high-gravity beers, and two draft beers for $32; on another visit we ordered four high-gravity beers for $23. Bottled beers averaging only $5.75 is an excellent deal for Utah County.
Like ABG’s, City Limits has their own speciality cocktails, and they’re definitely geared towards people who aren’t crazy about the taste of alcohol. The most popular drink seems to be a “Fruit Loop”: a mixture of vodka, something blue and fruity that I don’t think was Curacao, and—prepare yourself—half-and-half. It’s garnished with a cherry and tastes eerily like the milk left at the bottom of a bowl of Fruit Loops cereal. When we ordered a Manhattan, we were given a good-tasting and definitely whiskey-based drink, but not the genuine article. And that was fine. The only bar in the area where I would recommend drinking something other than a high-gravity local beer or a simple shot of tequila is the Owl Bar… at least so far.
The bartenders at this spot were the friendliest I’ve encountered in Utah County, keen to chat if you indicated an interest in their work, and I learned a bit more from them about what it’s like to keep bar in such a heavily regulated place. You’ve probably noticed that alcoholic drinks in Utah are always carefully measured, with most bars using measuring devices on top of each bottle. Drinks cannot contain more than 1.5 oz of what’s called a “primary liquor,” but, interestingly, each drink can contain up to 2.5 oz of total alcohol. This is why your gin martini looks like it was made for a doll’s house, but your Negroni might seem close to normal. An additional ounce can be added to the primary liquor if that additional ounce comes from a bottle marked as “flavoring.” Vermouth, interestingly, doesn’t count as part of the allowable 2.5 oz—hence the decent Negronis. (By the way, the Negroni is only an example—none of the bars I have mentioned in this article stock Campari!)
440 W Center Street, Provo, UT, 84601
A newcomer: This spot isn’t quite a bar, but I want to give Utah County residents a heads-up that Peace on Earth is open and that they are now serving alcohol. This is not a licensed bar, which means that you do have to order food if you want to drink, but they’ve added some inexpensive items to the menu: $5 for marinated olives or blue cheese chips, or you can order a sandwich, charcuterie board, bagel, or pastry for reasonable prices.
The drink selection includes mimosas and wine on tap, along with coffee cocktails, kombucha cocktails, and wine slushes. Everything ranges from $5-$8 on the current menu.
35 N 300 W #200, Provo, UT 84601
In Part II of this series, I’ll be visiting the bars of Orem and northern Utah County: The Hitching Post, Callie’s Cafe, and the Star Saloon. Let me know if I’m missing some hole-in-the-wall that I should check out!
Katharine Stevenson is a writer and homebrewer from Austin, Texas living in downtown Provo. When she’s not writing about software for a living, she’s writing about food, beer, or literature.