Kitty Pappas, who ran her iconic Utah steakhouse for 75 years, dies at 93

Her Woods Cross restaurant boasted large slabs of sirloin, and customers who went back generations.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kitty Pappas, the owner and cook of the The Kitty Pappas Steak House in Woods Cross, in 2012.

Kitty Pappas, who for almost 75 years ran the kitchen of the iconic Woods Cross steakhouse that bore her name and served big hunks of sirloin and slices of cake, has died.

Pappas died July 21 of natural causes. Her son, George, announced Pappas’ death on the restaurant’s Facebook page. She was 93.

“She was as kind as Mother Teresa, but as gruff as a longshoreman, without the bad mouth,” George Pappas said. “Except for a few damns and hells.”

Kitty Pappas worked in the restaurant from its opening in 1947 until 2021. In her later years, she usually stayed back in the kitchen, coming out occasionally to chat with regulars — some of them fifth- and sixth-generation customers.

“It’s a way of life. Why would I quit now?,” Pappas told The Salt Lake Tribune in September 2012, when she was 83 and the restaurant marked its 65th year in business.

George said he has single-handedly kept the steakhouse going for the last year or so, as his mother’s health declined.

“She wanted to keep it open and running as long as she was alive,” George told The Tribune. “So it was by the skin of my teeth, but I got the ball across the goal line.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Neon lights the sky outside the local landmark that is the Kitty Pappas Steak House in Woods Cross.

Long hours in the kitchen

When she was in charge, Kitty Pappas would be up at 6 a.m., so she could unlock the door at 6:30 a.m. for the morning bread delivery, George said. Then she would start baking cakes, one of her specialties.

“She didn’t write anything down,” George said, “so they were always a little bit different, other than the standards, like chocolate cake. She made a phenomenal coconut cake, a cherry nut cake that was phenomenal, a pineapple cake — well, they were all phenomenal.”

One of her flavors, George said, was a black licorice cake. “Black licorice, like it’s supposed to be,” he said. “This bit about cherry licorice, strawberry licorice … no, it’s just candy. I don’t know why they put the name licorice on them. Licorice should have that anise taste.”

During the winter, George — known as “Crazy George,” with a neon sign at the restaurant carrying that nickname — would go skiing at Solitude every day, then come back to the restaurants to cut steaks, chat with customers, sweep and buff the floors, and clean the grease out of the three-gallon fryer.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Crazy George with his mother, Kitty, in 2016.

“For four decades, I’d go skiing every day in the winter and live large as a barge, like a rock star, and then come work the swing shift,” he said.

Most days at the restaurant were insanely busy, George said, but they got through them. He said his mom worked harder than he did, cooking from 6 a.m. until the restaurant closed at 10 p.m. (In later years, the restaurant opened at 11 a.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, and closed at 10 p.m. on weeknights, and at 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The steakhouse was closed Sundays and Mondays.)

The kitchen was too small to fit a dishwasher, George said. When she interviewed kids for dishwashing jobs, her son said, they would look around and ask where the dishwasher was. She would laugh, George said, and say, “You don’t understand, son — you’re the dishwasher.”

Once, when Kitty was in her late 70s, a deliveryman brought in bags of potatoes on a dolly at high noon, during the lunch rush, George said. The dolly didn’t fit through the swinging kitchen door, so the deliveryman rammed the door and broke it off its hinges, George said.

Kitty, her son said, “grabbed the potatoes by the ears — they used to be in burlap bags — and flung it across the kitchen. The kid ran out and went back and said, ‘I’m not going back there. She’s crazy!’”

When there was a rare lull, George said, his mom would come into the house, lay in the recliner and put her feet up. “She’d be sound asleep in three minutes,” he said. “But if I came in and told her that there were orders, in no time she’d be back out there cooking.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kitty Pappas in front of her namesake restaurant in 1997.

Kitty and Johnny

Catherine “Kitty” McCarthy was born in Iowa on February 28, 1929. At 17, she married Johnny Pappas, who had served in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II, on June 23, 1946, in Reno, Nevada.

A year after they were married, Johnny Pappas — without consulting Kitty — bought the Scenic Inn, at 2300 Highway 89 in Woods Cross. They renamed it Johnny Pappas Steak House, and opened on September 17, 1947. Johnny, who had worked as a cook during the war, ran the kitchen, and Kitty donned a white-collared waitress uniform and waited tables.

At the time, the restaurant was surrounded by orchards. Slim Olson’s truck stop — the largest in the country at the time, with 43 pumps — was across the highway, the only other business in the vicinity.

“All the truckers who came up this highway stopped in,” Kitty Pappas said in 2012. “We were open seven days a week, 24 hours a day.”

The steakhouse had a small dance floor, and the Pappases hired music trios to play on the weekends. Customers would bring their own alcohol — “brown-bagging,” they called it then — and nosh on french fries.

A few years later, Kitty and Johnny had their first child, MaryAnn, and Kitty declared she was going to quit waiting tables to take care of the baby. Johnny built a house attached to the restaurant, so Kitty could watch the baby but jump in to help keep the restaurant going. Two sons, John Jr. and George, came after MaryAnn.

Johnny died of cancer in 1963, at age 49. Kitty, now a single mom, stepped in as cook and owner. It wasn’t until 1981 that she changed the name to Kitty Pappas Steak House.

The steakhouse, George said, was known for its Roquefort dressing, cheeseburgers, a salami sandwich, and — of course — the steaks.

“We cut them ourselves,” George said. “When [Mom’s] shoulder finally went out, she taught me how to cut steaks. I’m a million miles from a butcher, but if you set a top sirloin beef butt in front of me, I can cut the two steaks we served.”

The steaks were a 20-ounce sirloin, big enough to fill a plate and feed a family of four, and the half sirloin, between 10 and 12 ounces, and still large enough to make a meal the next day. A joke at the restaurant was that customers should never split the full steak, or George would call them cheap SOB’s.

Kitty Pappas is survived by her daughter, MaryAnn Siepert; her son, George Pappas; grandsons Nick and Greg Siepert; and countless former employees and longtime customers. Her older son, John Pappas Jr., died in 1980.

Per her wishes, no funeral is planned, George Pappas said. A celebration of life will be held Saturday, Aug. 20, from noon to 9 p.m. at the steakhouse. No food or drink will be served — the restaurant is now closed.