With its broad streets lined with formidable government and mercantile buildings, Salt Lake City isn’t known as a good walking town. Perhaps that’s why the burgeoning 9th and 9th neighborhood comes across as such a pleasant surprise.
At the intersection of 900 East and 900 South streets, the sidewalks are humming on a warm afternoon with people sipping lattes at Coffee Garden; strolling to Middle Eastern or Thai restaurants or to the acclaimed farm-to-table establishment Pago; catching a movie at the arthouse Tower Theatre; and shopping for orchids, purses, gifts and stylish outdoor wear. Once a favorite of University of Utah professors, this residential neighborhood has lately been re-energized by an influx of young couples and families lured by its two-story bungalows and Victorian houses.
“I love this area. We’re the anti-mall. Small businesses, locally owned,” says Jen DeVries, the owner of Purse Dreams. In her petite store, I find designer leather handbags from the San Francisco-based 49 Square Miles and bowler satchels in black, red and taupe designed by Olivia Harris. DeVries, who previously worked retail at Nordstrom and REI, wanted to open a store selling stylish yet unique purses in a way that made it possible for the clientele to touch the leather, play with the zippers and see whether the pockets are pragmatic for daily use. She also sells men’s accessories, such as shoulder bags and wallets.
On the next block, Hip & Humble is the place to go to when you’re looking for a gift but have no idea what to get. The hodgepodge of small rooms in the historic Victorian house showcases a wide range of merchandise, from women’s blouses, scarves and pants to cuckoo clocks, bathrobes, votive candles and an “I Love Trader Joe’s” cookbook. Kitchen supplies run the gamut from purple colanders and plaid plates to bottle bags ideally suited for a summer picnic.
Closer to the 9th and 9th juncture, Orchid Dynasty is an odoriferous delight. As soon as I enter, I’m greeted by the smell of fresh flowers, along with a wave of humidity. Purple, white and yellow orchids are but a small sampling of the more than 200 varieties that owners Shelly Huynh and Clinton Lewis grow behind the store in a garage converted into a greenhouse. Florists for more than 15 years, the couple moved their store to the neighborhood four years ago, enticed by the low-key, friendly and communal feel. Their clientele is a mix of regional homeowners and event planners who use the vast array of orchids for weddings and fundraisers in town.
Walk diagonally across the intersection and you’ll find Fresh, featuring stylish urban wear with a distinctive Salt Lake City feel. This being Utah, many of the store’s customers like to play outdoors. Fresh does its best to blend Patagonia attire with more cutting-edge design, such as a streamlined black spring jacket selling for $88. Other pieces of clothing include men and women’s jeans, colorful women’s blouses, baseball caps, shoes and Brixton T-shirts. The young brother-and-sister team of Ian and Helen Wade, who own the shop, hit tradeshows in Las Vegas and across the Southwest to keep the merchandise, well, fresh. They look for independent labels not very well known outside London, New York and Los Angeles.
On the same block as Fresh, I stop at Coffee Garden to take advantage of the free Wi-Fi along with a crowd of predominantly college and high school students. The place serves the usual assortment of coffee, lattes and teas along with such enticing desserts as a vanilla bean cheesecake and a rich Black Forest cake. But I’m saving my appetite for more intriguing fare.
There’s no shortage of dining options in the neighborhood. One day at lunch, I visit Thai Garden & Noodle House and order a spicy chicken stir-fry, loaded with crunchy veggies such as broccoli and snow peas. Other diners are digging into bowls of soup and pad Thai noodles.
The next day, I sample the Middle Eastern fare at nearby Mazza. It’s far more spacious and stylish than Thai Garden, and every table is taken. A friend and I share a citrusy baked eggplant salad along with a tasty roasted tomato and red lentil soup. Our main dishes, chicken shawarma and lamb kafte, which arrive on a bed of lettuce with a basket of warm pita, are also satisfying. The restaurant serves only locally sourced beef and lamb.
I needed a reservation well before arriving in Salt Lake City to snag a coveted table at Pago, one of the city’s most famous restaurants. We saunter past the small open kitchen to a two-top next to a brick-lined wall, ready to try the innovative kale Caesar salad, chopped kale topped with Parmesan cheese, pickled fennel and sunchoke chips. For entrees, the steelhead trout arrives with a crispy skin on the outside, tender meat on the inside, and doused in a tangy clam sauce; it’s coupled with fingerling potatoes and Brussels sprouts. Save room for the homemade gelato – often served a la mode atop a warm bread pudding – gone within five moments at our table.
After dinner, we walk over to the Tower Theatre to see what interesting independent and foreign films are screening. Opened in 1921, the theater is the oldest in the Salt Lake Valley and is now under the helm of the Salt Lake Film Society.
We chose to stay at Grand America, still the premier address in town and only a five-minute drive or a 20-minute bike ride from 9th and 9th, now that Salt Lake City has become the latest metropolitan area to add a bike-sharing program. Enter the elaborate lobby, complete with crystal chandeliers and marble wainscoting, and you may hear a harpist playing a soothing song. In summer, head to the outdoor pool, backed by the jagged peaks that surround the city. In winter, a bus stops directly in front of the property to take skiers on a 20-minute ride to the Alta ski resort.
Salt Lake City has always been the gateway to the mountains of Utah. Now that the world-class Natural History Museum of Utah is housed in a striking new building, the year-old City Creek Center continues to attract upscale shoppers, and neighborhoods such as the 9th and 9th create a welcoming vibe, there’s no need to rush to Park City or Deer Valley straight from the airport. Spend a weekend here, and you may end up stretching it to a week, hitting the mountains on easy day trips.