A great man is dead. John Williams, co-founder of Utah's Gastronomy chain died under horrific circumstances last week (see Dining, p. 22). But this is not the image I want to have left of our friend John. I'm choosing to remember his noble deeds, including those few details so few knew much about. Williams supported many local nonprofits and was the quiet king of charity. He also fought the royal battle to bring business back to an almost abandoned downtown in the mid-1970s. And he established a food empire that rules to this day in the likes of New Yorker, Market Street Grill and Market Street Oyster Bar.
I first met him back when we were all wearing polyester suits and platform shoes, smoking Shermans and drinking Long Island iced teas on the patio of the Shubrick apartments (now the Federal Building on West Temple and 400 South). Music from the Bee Gees blared from cheap speakers connected to a turntable. We'd move to the patio of the original Sun Tavern where the Vivint SmartHome Arena now sits and carry on our disco debauchery. We painted this town red ... over and over again.
Back then, the only seafood found in restaurants in Salt Lake City was of the frozen kind, and served at Bratten's Seafood Grotto at 644 East 400 South (about where Chili's is located now). They did not fly-in their fish daily, but they did have a vast menu ranging from clams, crab, shrimp and prawns "from both oceans" and fried oyster sandwiches.
Around 1977, a New York native came to town and wanted to open up a high-end disco. He chose the basement of New Yorker Building and spent his entire wad digging it out. I have his original business card in a scrapbook. The man threw one party in the dirt for his "Manhattan Bridge Company" before he vanished.
John Williams looked at the abandoned excavation and envisioned a restaurant there. The rest is gastronomic history. The finest restaurant in town opened in 1978, followed by the Market Street Grill and the connecting Oyster Bar in '81. Williams and his business partners brought together a fantastic skill set and a new empire was born. Nobody in the food business here could compete after Bratten's closed in 1988.
Thousands of past and present employees will mourn, as well as thousands of past guests. John, you will be sorely missed for your cheeky sense of humor, your generous gifts and your hard labors in creating an empire we could all enjoy. Goodbye, sweet prince.