When you set your GPS to Avenues Bistro on Third, you'll likely feel led astray. The acutely residential area seems a strange place for an esteemed restaurant. Yet nestled between the handsome Victorian homes and mature trees lies a surprise find: a quaint neighbourhood bistro with a complicated history. Perhaps it’s just this unassuming locale that George Stegner sought out when he first opened a speakeasy on Third Avenue, nearly a century ago.
Back then, prohibition made this an illegal establishment for its sale of alcohol. These days, there is no secret password or backdoor entry.
When our dinner party arrives, we immediately make our way into the subterranean drinking parlour. Two black and white portraits scrutinize us as we descend the stairs.
As we place our drink orders, we’re served up the building’s history by Kathie Chadbourne, Avenues’ animated proprietor.
In the dim light of the basement, Kathie tells us about humble beginnings, and how she came to discover the property's intriguing past.
A dream and a yard sale
“When I started this business, I had 25 dollars in my pocket,” she tells us.
The property had been listed for months, but it only took a chance encounter with the owner as Kathie walked by to inspire her to action.
“I went back to my apartment, put a sign up that read ‘everything for sale’ and borrowed $5,000 from my best friend. That night, at six o’clock, I wrote a cheque for $4,975 to pay the first month’s rent and the deposit."
Refusing to take bank loans, Kathie bootstrapped the launch of her bistro with the help of friends and family. She moved out of her apartment and put a sofa in Avenues’ cement-block basement, where she weathered Salt Lake City’s chilly temperatures for four months.
At this point, she had no idea of the building’s legendary history. But, if you believe in such things, her newly acquired bistro would soon tell its own story.
Things that go bump in the night
“[One time] I woke up in the middle of the night and I thought, man, why do I feel like I hear women dancing?
"At first, I thought, well maybe Balbina is having a party over at the hair salon. So I walked out the back door, into the pitch black. There was nothing going on. I laid back on my couch and I listened, and again, I hear women dancing and talking. I’m like, this is crazy. This is really crazy.
"I wandered toward the back of the building. I’m standing there – and this is a true story – I hear people dancing upstairs.
"At this point, I know that this is going on in the building. And now I’m thinking, this place is haunted. I was blown away. It’s happened several times since.”
Buried in the basement
Sometime later, the basement had to be excavated for repairs. During this process, a trove of curiosities from the past was unearthed.
“I was finding all this history. I started digging and pulled out scotch bottles with a little scotch left, cigars rolled in parchment paper, and signs. I took them to a sign company and they told me they were made back in the 30s.”
The items invited speculation, but it wasn’t until Kathie visited the Utah State Historical Society, that she discovered Avenues’ basement may have been a speakeasy.
“It’s documented on KUED, which is a PBS station here in Salt Lake. A famous author from the University of Utah, Wallace Stegner...his father [George] ran a speakeasy called Blind Pig in the lower avenues in the 30s during prohibition.”
It seemed Kathie finally had her answer.
Old-fashioned modern concept
But Avenues on Third is not only steeped in the nostalgia of the past. In the backyard, you'll find a contemporary gastro-trend: an urban farm. Hens scratch at the dirt and the gardens spill out from their beds.
While many restaurants are quick to tout farm-to-table, Avenues' short supply chain and relationships with small local purveyors mean meals are literally plated from the ground-up. Avenues’ dining experience could rest on the laurels of its novel history, but its garden gourmet is what has diners singing high praise.
Cold-smoked Utah trout garnished with cucumber dill crème fraiche and Meyer lemon marmalade sounds tempting. As does the painted chicken, a smoked-crisped breast finished with apricot-lavender laquer and served with chard and yam fries. After much deliberation, I opt for the Wagyu sirloin. Artfully plated, it’s served with garlic mash and a melange of roast garden vegetables. A dollop of pipian verde means I savour every mouth-watering bite.
Wrapping up our visit, Kathie tell us, ”I used to have everyone say, ‘Swordfish.’ Then they would come down through the back. The city made me stop.”
“Why? Because they thought it was…illegal?” queries one diner among our party.
“Because it’s Utah,” she says with a laugh. “So no more password. It's just an extension of our dining room. But it’s fun, isn’t it?”
Have you eaten your way
through Salt Lake City?
Where did you dine?
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