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Whatever happened to ... Bill and Nada's Cafe's time-warped decor, greasy fare that lured customers from all walks of life

First Published      Last Updated Feb 17 2016 02:12 pm

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

Tears flow easily whenever Tina Parsons remembers Bill and Nada's, the much-missed Salt Lake City cafe that once stood at 479 S. 600 East. The site is now a Smith's gas station.

"I drive by that Smith's now, but it's very difficult because I know what was there," Parsons says, her eyes welling up. "Now it's just ... ghosts."

Ghosts and memories. Of the tableside jukeboxes stocked with vintage country tunes. Of the Naugahyde seats and simulated wood-grain tables. Of the WHERE THE HELL IS BILL AND NADA'S? T-shirts and the paper place mats with the U.S. presidents. Of the spinning prize wheel, which, if it landed on your table number, would provide a free meal. Of the Big Bill sandwich, the orange pancakes and the most famous (and likely least-ordered) menu item of all: calf brains and eggs.

"Everybody I knew ate the brains and eggs," Parsons recalls. "They were good, but a little slimy, and you had to chew them. People would eat them on a dare. Most were either really high or really drunk when they ordered them."

Former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. was a Bill and Nada's regular in the 1970s. He was known for keeping a painting of the cafe in his office during his time in the Utah Capitol.

"It's one of my cherished possessions," he says.

Though Huntsman never had the courage to consume the sauteed cerebrum, he knows people who did.

"It upped their status in town considerably," he says.

Everyone welcome • The "Bizarre Foods"-worthy dish was just one aspect of the cafe that made it so appealing. The time-trapped decor and eau de greaseball aroma created an environment Tom Waits or Charles Bukowski would've felt comfy in, one that earned fans with all kinds of backgrounds, from blue-collar Utah Power & Light workers who needed a place to eat at 3 a.m., to business executives grabbing breakfast before an important meeting, to kids like Parsons and her friends — mohawked '70s punk rockers who needed a place where they wouldn't be judged.

"At that time, there were still places in town that had PUNKS NOT ALLOWED signs in their doors," Parsons says. "We would go there at 1:30 in the morning and wouldn't walk out until 2 in the afternoon, and the waitresses never said a word. It gave kids who got kicked out of their house a safe place to go."

"The crowd was a combination of artsy hipsters, washed-up rock musicians, which I would count myself one, and truckers working the night shift," Huntsman remembers. "Everything was always in motion. I remember watching a column of ants marching from a morsel of food in the middle of the floor straight up the wall."

Opened in 1946 by Bill McHenry and his wife, Nada — pronounced NAH-duh, not NAY-duh, and apparently you would've incurred Bill's wrath if you incorrectly pronounced it — the couple ran the 24-hour diner steadily until 1962, when Nada died. As a tribute, Bill never changed the cafe's name and never removed her portrait that hung on an inside wall.

McHenry was an avid horseman and rode in numerous Days of '47 parades, which is how he met Ellen Rawlins, whom he married the same year Nada died. Two years later, he hired Maxine Young as a waitress, and eventually she was put in charge of handling the cafe's finances.

"Ellen never dabbled in the cafe; that was Maxine," says Jolyn McKee, Bill and Ellen's granddaughter, who waitressed at the cafe for more than 20 years, as did Earline "Chipper" Young, Maxine's daughter.

"Maxine took over Nada's place, and she became a really big part of it," Young says. "Without Maxine, the business would have died. Bill would've ran it into the ground. He didn't have the personality to keep it going after Nada."

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