How Park City, Utah Is Faring in a Year Sans Sundance

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It’s a cold, wintery night when I arrive in Park City, Utah, and the place looks different than I remember. No crowds on Main Street. No art galleries repurposed as bars. No mob at the base of Town Lift where, for three nights each January, Tao used to turn an underground parking garage into a pulsing nightclub. No Hollywood stars, no attendant paparazzi.

For a decade, I was one of the approximately 125,000 visitors who descended on this charming ski town (population: 8,000) for the Sundance Film Festival, a phalanx of must-see film and television, a necessary stop on the social calendar, and an excuse to party under the guise of work (ratios varied, but most attendees came for all three). This year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sundance will mostly take place virtually. From January 28th to February 3rd, attendees will be able to participate in panels and screenings from home; several cities around the country will also screen this year’s entrants at their own theaters.

The new format is a boon to potential participants who may not have been able to travel to Park City in years past. For local business owners, though, it’s kind of a bummer.

Park City’s Main Street

Photo: Courtesy Park City Chamber/Bureau

"We made enough in one night to pay our rent for the whole year," Jason Morgan, an owner of Old Town Cellars, a rustic Main Street wine bar, says, citing the $25,000-per-night private buyouts that were routine for businesses with a prime location (read: on Main Street, or within a block of it).

But a recent visit suggests that for some out-of-towners (me, for one), the glare of Sundance obscured what’s truly special about this place: the snow, the sky, the abundance of fresh air, and a plethora of ways to reward yourself after you’ve availed yourself of that trifecta. Over the past 10 months, Park City’s bars, restaurants, and hotels have reinvented themselves to meet the needs of COVID-era patrons; sleek new homes are flying off the market faster than they can be built. And it helps that one of the region’s prime pastimes might as well have been made for social distancing.

“Tip to tail is about six feet,” Stefan Gosch, a ski instructor at Park City Mountain Resort tells me as I click into a pair of skis for the very first time. Between screenings and parties, 10 years of going to Sundance saw me hit the slopes only once—for a snowboarding lesson that went awry to such a degree that the instructor asked me to unclip from my board and use it as a sled. Thanks to Gosch, I take more easily to skiing. An online reservation system, instituted this season, ensures that the mountain and its lifts never get too crowded for comfort. Masks are mandatory, but judging from the near-universal compliance, and the high of 25 degrees, no one seems to mind the extra layer. This year, Park City Mountain partnered with Kit Lender, a Rent the Runway for ski and snowboarding apparel, to make getting suited up more seamless than ever.

Like the slopes, the restaurants at Park City Mountain require advance reservations, via a QR code plastered inside every gondola. It’s an innovation that ought to outlast the pandemic, because who wouldn’t want to guarantee a noon table for two at the Red Tail Grill, what with its transcendent chicken wings and spinach and artichoke dip, rather than chance it, show up, and have to wait an hour? “The fire pits have been really popular,” the hostess says, gesturing out the window at a foursome that have lowered their masks and elevated old fashioneds.

In town, popular haunts like the High West Saloon and Alpine Distilling’s Pie Bar have reformatted their interiors, spacing out tables and adding high-tech bells and whistles. “Sara has a sanitizer gun,” says Rob Sergent, referring to his wife and co-founder in Alpine Distilling, which makes award-winning, small-batch gin, whiskey, and vodka. “We take it very seriously,” says Sara. She points underneath a table on the other side of the lounge—cozy, clubby, with piping hot pecan pie and a bracingly good boulevardier—at a foot-tall mechanical fan emitting a bright, violet light. “We have a collection of these air purifying units,” Sara says. “One of those would do a space twice our size.”

Inside a yurt at the St. Regis Deer ValleyPhoto: Courtesy St. Regis Deer Valley

One of the hottest tables in town is actually a yurt. In December, the St. Regis Deer Valley erected eight insulated yurts that look like pop-up ski chalets, complete with chandeliers, framed art, personal heaters, and the sort of cross-hatched wood paneling you’d expect to find inside an Alsatian hut. Each yurt can fit up to eight people. “They’re super popular with my clients right now,” says Lucien Alex Campbell, the owner of RTT Concierge, a travel planning service. He also owns Onyx, a socially distanced wine lounge on Main Street, which serves a rotating selection of champagne, caviar, and charcuterie. “If you’re not comfortable coming out, we’ll come to you,” he adds. “Our sommeliers come with masks, face shields, the works.”

Campbell has sent more than a few somms to Apex, a new ski in, ski out residential development next to Park City Mountain. All of the owners of Apex’s 63 high-design, multi-story homes come from out of state—the east coast, Texas, California, and Illinois—and many rent them out to other out-of-towners via Airbnb and VRBO. “Our business is up a huge amount over last year,” says Terry Nolan, Apex’s property manager. “I think that’s because a lot of travelers look at us as a refuge. With these kitchens,” double ovens, wine coolers, 10-burner stoves, “you can come here, hunker down and not have to go out for dinner or expose yourself to other visitors.”

A two queen room at the Washington School House HotelPhoto: Courtesy of Washington School House Hotel

But to experience the best meal in Park City, you’ll have to book a room at the Washington School House. This 12-room boutique hotel, which occupies a 19th century schoolhouse and feels like a cross between a Parisian atelier and a Nancy Meyers movie, only serves guests. Chef Ryan Frye changes the menu frequently and draws on influences from Mexico and Southeast Asia to elevate comfort food to ethereal heights. His lobster tartine evokes summer on the water, even as snow dusts the elms outside. On a recent night, he follows up that tartine with a morsel of mole-dressed short rib—“better than Pujol,” one diner says—and a mouth-tingling green curry of root vegetables. “My philosophy is that there are no rules,” Frye says. “Use what the world provides.”

His is a spirit of resourcefulness that defines this vibrant, adapting ski town, famous for a star-studded film festival but notable for so many reasons more. “We’re all just kind of doing what we can with what we’ve got,” Gosch, the ski instructor, says on my final morning on the mountain, and what Park City’s got is well worth the trip.

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