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Whatever happened to ... the Grabeteria?

Diners read newspapers posted on the walls, paid on the honor system and for years, dodged women.

Photo courtesy of the Special Collections Department at the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah. In a circa 1925 image created for the Western Confectioner, a clerk at the Grabeteria is selling fruit to William M. McConakay, manager of the McConakay Jewelry Co. of Salt Lake City. Art Davis, manager of the Grabeteria, is seen in the doorway, with the short apron.

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

Back when there was no TRAX line in Salt Lake City, no super malls or Wal-Marts in town and men-only establishments were accepted as a normal custom, the Grabeteria was a popular eatery in the Continental Building on Main Street with a unique ambiance and dining style.

"There were no stools, no counter, no booths, no tables," said longtime Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce President Fred Ball, now retired. "There was just a shelf along the walls where the customers would grab their food, hence the name 'Grabeteria,' find a place along the wall and eat their lunch."

It was a place to "eat, catch up on the news and to see and be seen," Ball said.

Offering the latest news was a Grabeteria hallmark: Magazine and newspaper articles were plastered on the walls so diners could squeeze into a spot and read up on current events while chowing down on sandwiches (which they prepared themselves from the ingredients on trays) and chili.

Passers-by gazing into the small space the Grabeteria occupied — it could hold about 50 people, maximum, as long as they were standing up — would see men in their fedoras cramped shoulder to shoulder, reading their favorite magazine or newspaper.

"It was a competition to nudge into a space where your favorite magazine was on the wall," said Ball. "You usually needed to get there early, before the noon hour, to get a good place."

The late Ralph Painter, the Grabeteria's last owner, told The Salt Lake Tribune that each customer had about two feet to maneuver while eating his lunch and reading.

"It definitely had a masculine flavor," Painter said in 1977, when the restaurant closed after 64 years in business.

For decades, he noted, it was a male-only establishment with a room in the back called "Ye Old Bullpen," where men could converse and exchange humorous jabs in a stag-type atmosphere.

The Grabeteria was opened at 69 S. Main Street in 1913 by Arthur W. "Art" Davis. After he sold it in December 1944, the first of several ownership changes, he told The Tribune how the restaurant evolved.

"It was competition which drove me into the cafeteria business," Davis said. "My fruit and grocery sales almost stopped, and I faced bankruptcy because I had a lease. So I decided to enlarge my delicatessen business. More and more people dropped in to make their own sandwiches, help themselves to a piece of pie or cake, eat some fruit, and when they were through, they would pay for it. The business just grew up."

With no room for seats, the Tribune reported in 1944, "customers stood up much in the same manner as at an old-fashioned bar.

A display of curios and the latest picture magazines [were] there for entertainment.

Beer and loud music both were conspicuously absent. Steaming hot foods, the makings of salads and many delectables kept on clean shelves behind glass covers were there to beguile the customers, the number of which has skyrocketed during the present war period."

Painter eventually changed the long-standing tradition of allowing only men in the restaurant, a move that came before male-only clubs and organizations like the Alta Club, Rotary and Kiwanis clubs began admitting women as members.

"I think the Grabeteria started going downhill when they put in tables and chairs and women started eating there," former Utah Attorney General Vernon Romney told The Tribune at the time of the restaurant's closing. "It lost some of its original atmosphere."

The Grabeteria closed for good when Painter, the last owner, decided to retire at the age of 71. He lived in retirement for 31 more years and died in 2008 at the age of 102.

Romney remembered going to the Grabeteria as a child and falling in love with the landmark barrel of peanuts at the front of the restaurant. "We used to grab handfuls of the peanuts. It was great."

Former Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson remembers going to the Grabeteria as a kid and seeing all the food displayed within reach.

"I remember seeing all the pies," Wilson said. "And they were just there. I thought I could just grab at them and eat as many pies as I wanted."

Former U.S. Sen. Jake Garn ate at the Grabeteria "a few times," but he said his memory of the place is vague. "I just remember the food was really good," he said. "Taste buds always have a good memory."

The Grabeteria operated on the honor system. Patrons would walk in, grab their food, find the best place to stand at the shelf and then pay as they were leaving.

Romney remembered an old cowbell by the cash register.

If a patron began walking out without paying, he said, the cashier would ring the cowbell and everyone would turn around and glare. In earlier days, a clerk who spotted a moocher would ring a gong, The Tribune reported in 1944.

"Most people are honest, and that is why I stayed in business," Davis, the original owner, said then. "Some, of course, would cheat, but after all, I did stay in business. I haven't heard of anyone else trying such a venture, though, so that speaks well of the type of people who have frequented the Grabeteria."

The late Wendell Ashton, who at the time the restaurant closed was director of external affairs for the LDS Church and later would serve as publisher of the Deseret News, said the attraction of the place was its diversity [sans women].

"You would meet people from all walks of life," he told The Tribune. "It was just a great place where you could go and exchange ideas with folks who had different beliefs and backgrounds than your own."

Ashton at the time relayed a story about the late LDS Church Apostle Matthew Cowley, who ate lunch frequently at the Grabeteria.

Cowley was once asked why he ate at the Grabeteria instead of the LDS Church-owned Lion House, where most church leaders dined regularly.

"He said it was because there are too many Mormons at the Lion House," Ashton remembered.

If you have a spot you’d like us to explore, email whateverhappenedto@sltrib.com with your ideas.

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