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Whatever happened to ... Señor Pepe’s?

First Published      Last Updated Oct 27 2015 10:17 am

Editor's note • In this regular series, The Salt Lake Tribune explores the once-favorite places of Utahns, from restaurants to recreation to retail.

At a time when Mexican cuisine was rare in Salt Lake City, Louis and Athena Nichols knew there was a Utah appetite for Tex-Mex.

By 1967, Louis had owned a stock brokerage and Windsor Lounge, and had run a bar called the Boulder. He saw the popularity of Mexican restaurants like the Tampico, a casual eatery that opened in Salt Lake City after World War II, and he wanted to try it out.

"Tampico had people waiting in lines to get in," Louis said. What was missing, he figured, was a fine dining experience.

Louis and Athena enlisted the help of a friend, Ethel Vasquez, who had learned the art of Mexican cooking from her Mexican husband.

That's when the idea for the chandelier-adorned Señor Pepe's, one of Salt Lake City's favorite restaurants of the 1970s and '80s, was born.

Dedicated to the city's downtown, Louis bought the building at 216 S. State Street from a man who owned a Western clothing store. The Nichols bought the inventory of boots and cowboy hats, liquidated it and renovated the building, opening the restaurant in 1968.

Low, leather booths lined the sides of the room, with tables in the center atop deep red carpet. The brick walls were painted white and bright paper flowers of all sizes lined the walls and blossomed between booths.

"Nobody had seen a Mexican restaurant that was that nice when it first opened," said Kathy Draper, one of the couple's daughters. "It was known for its paper flowers and being colorful."

The food was classic Tex-Mex: combination plates with tacos or cheese enchiladas, flautas and sopapillas (a Mexican scone), and the restaurant's famous chile verde. Tapioca pudding and Snelgrove's ice cream were served for dessert.

Jackson, Wyo., native Lance Davidson remembers dining at Señor Pepe's when he visited Utah during his teenage years.

"Going there to eat was always a high point of downtown Salt Lake City for me," said Davidson, who recalls the restaurant being dimly lit with dark woods, and the waitresses wearing white, traditional Mexican blouses and long, vibrant skirts.

A downtown draw • Originally, Louis called the restaurant Señor Peco's. But after a San Francisco restaurant named Señor Pico caught wind of Nichols' success and sued for the name, Señor Peco's became Señor Pepe's.

The Nichols redecorated in the mid-1970s, losing the paper flowers created by one of Athena's friends. The walls remained white, decorated with faux stained glass windows.

"We were clean and new," Louis said. "We made an effort to make it look like having Mexican food was just as good as having American food."

The spot was popular among business people, making lunchtime the restaurant's busiest hours, Draper said.

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