I hate having to write this damned article. But, upon hearing of the tragic death of John Williams, I just wasn't in the space to do a "business-as-usual" restaurant review this week. I sure wish I were writing about Williams under happier circumstances, because that's how I remember him. For anyone who might not know, Williams died in a house fire on May 22. His estranged husband, against whom Williams had filed for divorce earlier in the month, is facing charges of aggravated homicide and aggravated arson.
I don't know if Williams ever marched in a Pride parade. I do know that he took great pride in his businesses, as well as in constantly furthering Salt Lake City culture and cuisine. He was a patron of the arts and a bold pioneer, albeit a quiet one, in helping to advance LGBTQ rights and recognition in our community. That was long before—dating all the way back to the 1970s—it was routine or even safe to be "out" as a gay man in that very community.
Having written about the local dining scene for more than 20 years, it's hard for me to imagine what it has become without acknowledging the influence of John Williams and his company, Gastronomy Inc. The story has been told many times, but it's worth repeating. From the time that Williams set his eyes upon the decaying New York Hotel from his nearby haunt in the Shubrick Apartments, he wanted to save it. And save it he did.
In 1978, Williams opened the New Yorker restaurant, and it's been one of Utah's most venerable and enduring dining destinations since. He took special pride in his restaurant, and turned to the local art community for the unique, contemporary décor and ambiance that would characterize all of his ventures. Stained glass windows, painted columns and works from local artists set Williams' restaurants apart. During a recent visit to the New Yorker, I was touched to see a colorful portrait of his business partner Tom Sieg—who died in 2008—hanging at the bar, in front of the seat he seemingly always occupied, serving as an amiable host to guests old and new. Like Sieg, Williams often proudly patrolled his restaurant, spreading his warmth among customers. It's sad to think that a portrait of Williams will probably soon accompany Sieg's, much sooner than it should have.
But as sad as this week has been, I and all of my colleagues with whom I've spoken remember Williams as a very happy and dynamic man. We've all received warm hugs from him—even during times when we might not have been championing his food. In retrospect, there's a lot to be said of the "comfort" food served up at Gastronomy's Market Street restaurants, even if they're not exactly examples of cutting-edge cuisine.
With Williams, business partners Tom Guinney and Sieg launched the first Market Street Grill and Oyster Bar downtown. Those successes would be followed by Market Street Broiler, Baci Trattoria, Club Baci, Café Pierpont, China Star and additional Market Street locations. I still mourn the closing of Baci Trattoria, a restaurant that was ahead of its time, serving chic Italian fare in a contemporary setting when the dining public wanted spaghetti and meatballs and checkered tablecloths.
In addition to being restaurateurs, Williams and his Gastronomy partners were/are real estate investors, and very good ones. You might recall that under Williams' direction in the 1990s, they purchased the Firestone Building, the Salt Lake Hardware Building and the Ford Motor Co. Building. Their real estate savvy has probably helped prop up their restaurants in lean times. And, Williams was always especially keen on saving historic Salt Lake City structures from the wrecking ball. He and his business partners were recognized in 1998 by The National Trust for Historic Preservation with its highest award—the National Trust Honor Award. Their commitment to historical preservation helped to shape the way our downtown looks and feels today.
I wasn't here in '78, but I'm told that just about everyone advising Williams thought he was nuts to open the New Yorker. He was quoted in a Salt Lake Tribune article years ago saying, "People were concerned about our sanity." Remember, this was way before the city had the plethora of upscale dining spots it does today, and sticker shock at the New Yorker was definitely a factor. Nevertheless, the restaurant has been a hit ever since its doors opened.
Just as this restaurant paved way for the other high-end ones that followed, Williams' Market Street Grill was also a pioneering force in our culinary scene. Prior to its opening, fresh fish and seafood in local restaurants meant pretty much one thing and one thing only: trout. But Williams and his partners struck a deal with Delta Airlines in which they would fly fresh seafood in from the West Coast on a daily basis. One has to wonder if all of the sushi spots that SLC has spawned in the past decade or so would have been feasible without Williams and Gastronomy blazing the trail to bring in fresh ocean fare, thereby helping to train our taste buds.
Just as John Williams left his mark on our palates and on the city's skyline, he also left an army of faithful employees to praise his generosity, professionalism and mentorship. I will miss him. But I take solace knowing that part of his soul is embedded in the very brick-and-mortar of the restaurants and community he loved.