Just an hour before the first overture notes ascend from the orchestra pit, theatergoers sit at a contemporary counter next door, noshing on gold potato gnocchi with langoustines and Pink Pine pizza—a surprising confluence of fennel sausage, leek, and shishito pepper, wood fired to perfection in a Valoriani oven.
Chef Michael Richey’s Fireside was the first restaurant to debut on Salt Lake City’s Regent Street last year. The eatery is part of an overall reinvention of the alley that now exists behind the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater, a downtown thoroughfare connecting the Gallivan Plaza and City Creek Center. The street has been reimagined to add luster to this section of downtown. In a previous life, Regent Street was no more than a dank corridor flanking a parking structure and the defunct printing presses for Deseret News and The Salt Lake Tribune.
Replacing Brothels With Burgers
Looking farther back, the avenue reveals a more storied past. According to Utah Humanities, from the late 1800s to early 1900s, the street (originally named Commercial Street) was the center of Utah’s Chinatown, with restaurants, grocery stores, and a joss house where the immigrant community could worship. The Utah Division of State History reports that the street was also home to two brothels, which The Salt Lake Tribune then called “a resort of gamblers and fast women.”
With the advent of the Eccles Theater development, civic, and business leaders saw an opportunity to do something with the street behind the playhouse, to take it beyond a mere access point for the theater loading dock and parking structure. That’s why, early on, VODA Landscape + Planning was brought on to the project to help steer Regent Street planning in the right direction.
“The city wanted to use the theater to energize a street that everyone saw a lot of potential for,” says Mark Morris, VODA principal landscape architect/urban designer. “We started peeling back all the layers, and we found out Regent Street has this fascinating history that could be told,” adds Mr. Morris. “Regent Street is a microcosm of the American West. The Chinese immigrants that lived there, the red-light district; it was home to the Pony Express—all these interesting things that had happened on Regent Street over time had gotten demolished or forgotten. With the design, we wanted to bring a lot of that back. We wanted to tell a story that wouldn’t be told anywhere else.”
The Ghosts Of Our Past Live On
Now pedestrians can find a “press sheet”—an art installation embedded in the pavement that winds its way down the street. This is an homage to the printing presses that churned out vital information for the Intermountain West for more than seven decades.
“Once in a while we pop in a quote [or] a plaque, so someone can look down and see something about the Pony Express, or the history of the Chinese population on Regent Street,” Mr. Morris says. “We incorporated quotes from literary figures in Salt Lake’s history—Wallace Stegner, Mark Twain, Terry Tempest Williams. We wanted people to connect with that in a way of asking questions: What does this mean, why is it here?”
There are other subtler references to the past, with red planters that connote Chinese red and the red-light district, a move that Mr. Morris calls “a cheeky way to reflect the nuanced and layered history.”
Different from downtown’s typically wide, large-scale streets, Mr. Morris says Regent’s narrower avenue is on a scale that people can feel comfortable in.
“Our design team was looking at how we create a place that was pedestrian-friendly, oriented to human speeds. People walk at a three-mile-per-hour speed. We wanted things for people to look at, an experience they would say, ‘I couldn’t do it all, but I want to come back,'” he says. “Regardless, if people [are] coming to the theater, if they’re going downtown, we want there to be a lot going on.”
But Now You Can Get Fried Chicken There
Now in its second year, Fireside has been joined by Pretty Bird, a restaurant that takes an unexpected twist on “hot chicken.” The restaurant is the brainchild of Viet Pham, who, apart from being Salt Lake’s local culinary hero, was also named Food & Wine’s Best New Chef, was the winner of “Iron Chef,” and is the former co-owner and chef of the acclaimed Forage. Needless to say, it’s become quite the popular hotspot. Its deceptively simple menu features fried chicken sandwiches and quarter birds, all prepared with the chef’s attention to complex seasoning and texture. Pretty Bird has boasted long lines and sell-outs since it opened in February of this year.
Last Course Dessert Studio also recently opened, serving unique confections like Foster’s Banana Tacos, a medley of cinnamon sugar taco shells stuffed with sautéed caramel pecans, bananas, and Tahitian vanilla ice cream.
From morning to night, Regent Street is attracting crowds of all stripes. “Regent Street has a healthy mix—the street has been well-used by downtown’s daytime workforce, especially those working in the adjacent 111 Main office tower,” says Laura Fritts, director of economic development for Salt Lake City. Of course theatergoers make up a large portion of the night-time patrons, but Regent Street is becoming a destination in its own right. The curbless street features removable bollards and can be closed to vehicular traffic to provide a safe venue for outdoor festivals and gatherings, such as last year’s Illuminate Light Art and Technology Festival,” she says.
Ms. Fritts says the project is nearing completion, with its final crowning jewel—a $2 million public art installation—coming in 2019. With additional retail and dining space that will populate the east side, and a site for a boutique hotel on the southwest corner, community and civic leaders are watching Regent Street live up to its new potential.
“In terms of how Regent Street can impart change in the city at-large, the sky is the limit,” Ms. Fritts says. “It is our hope that when the development community sees how an underutilized, dark service street can be transformed, they will consider investing in other parts of the city that may have also outlived original purpose.” From its Old West beginnings in the 19th century to its modern reprise in the 21st, Regent Street is a vibrant sign of things to come for downtown’s brilliant future.