Bijan Ghiai of Urban Hill: Managing a Restaurant Bar in Salt Lake City

Urban Hill is the fine-dining concept of Utah-based restaurant group Leave Room for Dessert Eateries from rising restaurateur Brooks Kirchheimer (Utah Business‘ “40 Under 40” for 2023). Running the immaculate bar program is Bijan Ghiai, bar director at Urban Hill, who has been working behind the bar since he was 19 years old.

Ghiai started working at a locally-owned Utah-based winery, La Caille, where wine quickly became a passion. Ghiai’s depth of wine and spirits has evolved over the years and has influenced the selection at Urban Hill, which pays homage to bio-diverse and low-intervention wines.

Regarding spirits, Ghiai focuses on having an array of classic offerings while showcasing unique liquor and aperitif selections, many of which he had to newly establish through the state of Utah’s rigorous DABS. Think special Italian amaro and Caribbean rum pours, while on the cocktail side, off-menu specials like the Kalamata olive dirty martini.

We spoke to Ghiai about running a bar program in Salt Lake City and his favorite cocktail as of late.

Bijan Ghiai, Beverage Manager at Urban Hill in Salt Lake City, UT – image courtesy of Urban Hill

Chef’s Roll: You’ve worked in hospitality since you were 19, starting at a winery La Caille in Utah. Was there a pivotal moment or experience that made you want to pursue a career behind the bar?

Bijan Ghiai: Being at La Caille introduced me to all the thought and purpose that goes behind every detail; seeing how maniacal it can get is what got me hooked. I started as a support staff, and once I turned 21, I was introduced to all these unique spirits and the intricacies of French wine, which ultimately created a monster – you could say I became obsessed with learning more about wine and the hospitality industry.

CR: How has your wine journey grown throughout your career – both in industry shifts (bio-dynamic/low intervention) to your knowledge, interests, and tastes?

BG: It’s evolved to where I have found that wines that showcase the region most naturally and organically are the most interesting. There will always be a fun story about the producer or the vineyard, but letting Mother Nature do its own thing and produce the wine using natural practices is a bit more beautiful. It better represents the area and the producer itself – the land.

You know the wine has yet to be manipulated by covering notes or burdening it with adjustments.

CR: How has this inspired your journey to conceptualize the Urban Hill wine program?

BG: I have a sustainable focus on the bar program. We strive to keep a sustainable footprint by highlighting wine makers/producers that focus on their region’s ecology to preserve and not disrupt.

Yet, there’s a give and take regarding what you want to provide to every guest that will not necessarily be received the same way by everyone. If I only focus on bio-dynamic and dry farming wines, I would only focus on one demographic. A lot of brand recognition comes into play in this industry that can command attention. With that being said, when constructing my list, I keep my efforts and a large majority of focus on sustainable offerings, but also having classic brand recognition that our guests enjoy and fit with our ethos. What is great about our guests at Urban Hill is that they are open to trying sustainable alternatives, and we facilitate that by initiating the dialogue.

images courtesy of Jacque Lynn Photography

CR: Moving onto cocktails, how would you describe the beverage program at Urban Hill?

BG: Salt Lake City is a growing market both in its popularity and also in our guests’ culinary/beverage knowledge. It’s been my job to slowly scale our beverage program by introducing some great Italian and French aperitifs, digestives, vermouths, etc, in our cocktails, as well as introducing local distilleries into our portfolio that are doing amazing things.

We are very focused on sustainability at Urban Hill, so I am also trying to keep our leading spirits coming from smaller sources. Yet, it won’t always be the case since we are located in Utah, where alcohol is state-run. This means that I have to special order things all the time, and the lead time for delivery is typically 6-8 weeks. It makes my job slightly more inconvenient, but offering our guests something special that they can’t find at any other restaurant in Salt Lake is well worth it.

CR: With Utah’s unique alcohol laws, how does that shift your beverage planning?

BG: At times, I’ve encountered the problem where the bottle I want to special order isn’t even in the Utah state DABS database, which means the process takes a bit longer. You almost forget six months later that you ordered that special alcohol or liqueur when it arrives, yet now every bar in Utah can order it with a 6-week arrival instead of a painstaking six months. But it’s well worth it, and it also feels like you have a stake in morphing the beverage scene in Utah.

It has allowed us to be creative with our cocktail creation and find ways to offer these special pours to our guests in more approachable ways.

infographic made by Chef’s Roll // image courtesy of Urban Hill


CR: What’s the No.1 selling cocktail at Urban Hill?

BG: Our no.1 selling cocktail is our in-house creation, “For the Love of Honey,” with Blanco Tequila and Génépy d’Alps liqueur. Most of our guests look down the list, recognize the spirit, and feel comfortable ordering it, yet I try to introduce new spirits/liquors that guests aren’t as familiar with. We average about 168 “For the Love of Honey” cocktail orders per month.

CR: How many wines by the glass does Urban Hill have on its menu?

BG: We have 24 wines by the glass, with 35% being rotating bio-dynamic sustainable wines.

CR: What’s your favorite drink and snack/food pairing at Urban Hill?

BG: I am a classic guy, so I will go with a sidecar made with some really good cognac if I hang out at the bar. If I have a snack, I’d go with a glass of Amontillado Sherry and Chef Nick Zocco’s pâté. Chef Nick just took it off the menu, but I am sure it will return because it is so good! The pairing is just perfection with an umami flavor profile.

CR: Finally, what is your ideal atmosphere and cocktail mashup?

BG: It will have to be somewhere al fresco in New York or Italy with a glass of single-grower Champagne, or an Americano cocktail garnished with some lovely green olives.

image courtesy of Urban Hill