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The Day the Pouring Died

Longtime patrons bid adieu to iconic Sugar House watering hole.

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The Bar in Sugarhouse's exterior is adorned with a frosted funeral cross on Tuesday, Feb. 28, as the watering hole is packed up. - ENRIQUE LIMÓN
  • Enrique Limón
  • The Bar in Sugarhouse's exterior is adorned with a frosted funeral cross on Tuesday, Feb. 28, as the watering hole is packed up.

While Utah's liquor laws changed dramatically during The Bar in Sugarhouse's 70-year reign, the iconic tavern avoided most of the legal churn by serving only one kind of beverage: beer. Granted, it was weak, 3.2-percent-ABW beer—a threshold established for taverns in 1934 and unchanged since—but it was cold, cheap and plentiful. Poured in a tiny A-frame ski chalet, the pints drew locals in, and the atmosphere and familiar faces kept them coming back.

But the commercialization of Sugar House was one change the bar couldn't withstand. This past Saturday was its final last call. In a letter to customers, owners Spencer and Lisa Ahrend lamented that the tavern had succumbed to "what we are all experiencing as the development of the 'new' Sugar House."

Ironically, it seems that even the "new Sugar House" is mourning the loss of the tavern, affectionately known as "the little bar." The Ruin, a new addition to the neighborhood, is a hip and modern lounge best known for its cocktails. The polar opposite of The Bar in Sugarhouse, The Ruin considered the tavern an integral part of the community. "It's sad to see it go," says Chase Worthen, a manager at The Ruin. "We've been working to build a bar community here. The Bar in Sugarhouse was always a great stop between The Ruin and other Sugar House bars. Unfortunately, their closing affects us all."

On Saturday night, it was clear that the bar will leave a hole in the hearts of many locals. On any given weekend night, the chalet's 625 square feet often were filled to capacity; on closing night, the room was packed shoulder-to-shoulder and patrons spilled out onto the sidewalk, saying their goodbyes. The conversation varied between typical boisterous bar chatter and somber—sometimes angry—discourse over the future of Sugar House.

Alysson Galarza, a Salt Lake City native and frequent patron, moved back to Sugar House a year ago after nearly two decades living in Montana. She and her husband chose to buy a house nearby where they could walk to both the little bar and to neighboring Fat's Grill. Much to their dismay, both businesses closed in the short time since.

"I've always had a soft spot for the dive bar," Galarza says of the two establishments. "The gritty, honest conversation and beer. We really liked going down to The Bar or Fat's after work. Sugar House had both these low- and high-class vibes, it felt very eclectic."

The Ahrends announced the sale on Feb. 20, five days before the bar closed. Immediately, longtime patrons began flooding the small space.

On Thursday night, Tim Ball visited for the last time. Outside, heavy snow fell in a late February blizzard, but inside was cozy. The walls were covered in original wood paneling and illuminated by the glow of neon Coors and Budweiser signs. Ball and his friends nursed their pints and recalled fond memories there.

"We moved here from Alaska with no friends," Ball said. "It was New Year's Eve. We were walking by and were drawn in. The first person we met bought us beers all night long. It was always easy to make a friend here." A week later, visiting the bar for a second time, Ball and his fiancée met the person who would later be their wedding officiant. "This bar is like Cheers ... everyone knows your name."

Evidently, Ball wasn't the only one that considered the tavern his real-life Cheers. On that same Thursday night, the jukebox began blaring the theme song from the '80s television sitcom and the entire bar—drunk and sober alike—sang along. The scene was both heartwarming and heart-rending.

Perhaps those most affected by the bar's closing are its employees, who were given a sudden one-week warning. While the owners have undoubtedly been given a large payout to shut down, the heart and soul of the joint—its bartenders—have been left with no severance and only days to find new jobs.

Despite this sudden ending, bartender Brian Gabbitas was more concerned about the community than about himself. "We were local; we were a part of the neighborhood," he mused. "Losing the bar is a huge loss for Sugar House. It really sucks that I'm out of a job, but it is worse that all these people I care about no longer have a place to hang out."

The shuttering of the venerable chalet not only represents the the loss of a meeting place, but also a part of Sugar House's history. The structure was originally a chiropractor's office owned by Spencer Ahrend's grandfather. In 1946, the building was leased to Manny Daniels who started the tavern, then known as the Tap Room. After a legal dispute, the bar closed in 2001 and then reopened under new ownership (that of the Ahrends) and a new name.

So what will become of 2168 Highland Drive? The property has been purchased by developer Craig Mecham who has spent years snatching up land in the area, including Fat's Grill. Mecham's other projects in the neighborhood include Sugar House Crossing—a multi-use development that includes The Vue apartments and Wasatch Brew Pub.

Mecham plans to use his newly acquired property to build the Dixon Medical Building. According to the Sugar House Community Council, the new structure will provide medical office space and a University of Utah medical clinic will be the primary tenant. Drawings show a boxy, six-story building that one online critic called "another hideous box by unimaginative architects."

Jeremy Cox, a regular at the bar, complained about the neighborhood's new development: "You can't stop progress, but it should be done in a tasteful manner."

The Ahrends themselves seemed disdainful of this new era. "This 'new' Sugar House consists of modern architecture, high-end grocery stores and downtown-style living," they wrote. "The days of the quaint little tavern will only live in the history books."

Of course, Sugar House's modernization is not all bad. The outdoor plaza at Sugar House Crossing provides a lively outdoor space where shoppers and diners are treated to live music in the warmer months. Families are able to safely walk and bike to shops thanks to the new Parley's Trail tunnel under 1300 East, and soon on the improved McClelland Trail. Young, urban professionals have moved into the newly built apartments where they can walk to work, to dinner and to the grocery store.

The economic impact of the new development is undeniable. Since the establishment of the Sugar House Neighborhood Development Plan in 1986, the taxable value of the properties in the area has increased 357 percent, from $54.5 million to $248.8 million, according to a report by Salt Lake County.

That said, for the patrons of The Bar in Sugarhouse—many of whom experienced their first beer at the old wooden bar decades ago—drinks at The Ruin or at Wasatch Brew Pub will never be able to replace the community they had at the pint-sized establishment. "The bar will never be replicated and it will always have its own special place in the hearts of all of us that were fortunate enough to have gone there," Gabbitas concluded. "I'll always cherish the time I had at the little bar."

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