Michael Eccleston and Katy Willis spent months searching for a place in Salt Lake City to open an arcade-themed bar. Then a friend suggested they look at the old Manhattan Club on the corner of 400 South and Main.
The 7,000-square-foot space was not only the right size and price, it also came with a built-in piece of Salt Lake City history. “We love old things and old places,” said Willis, “and one of the things we’re excited about is keeping this space as a bar.”
Their Quarters Arcade Bar, expected to open in early 2018, will become the newest chapter in the colorful story of this beloved basement bar.
The rich history started in 1910, when mining magnate John J. Daley built the New Grand Hotel. During its first 20 years in business, the basement hosted a rotating list of businesses, including a cafe, a bank, a bakery, a drugstore, a pool hall and a fraternal club.
Since 1930, the space that extends under Main Street and today’s TRAX trains has been a bar. Initially it was the Brass Rail, a dance and cabaret club. Later it was the Chi Chi Club and then the Manhattan Club, owned and operated by the Hatsis brothers — Tony, Tommy and Duke — who employed several members of their extended Greek-American family.
“It was the most stylish club west of the Mississippi,” remembers Salt Lake City resident Robert Wathen, Duke’s nephew. “I grew up running around the place. My mom worked the coat check and my dad was a waiter.”
Wathen said guests would come to the Manhattan Club dressed “to the nines,” with men in tuxedos and women in gowns, diamonds and fur. When they walked down the stairs — and under the iconic neon sign of the New York City skyline — it was like stepping into “another world.”
Once inside the steel doors, they sat in puffy booths, listened to live jazz and whirled the night away on the giant dance floor. “It was the place to be on New Year’s Eve,” said Wathen, who remembers going to the club with his brothers and cousins to inflate the helium balloons for those big parties.
“The Hat,” as musicians liked to call it, oozed cool, and through the years, it supposedly had many celebrity performers, from Frank Sinatra and Liberace to B.B. King. Legend also has it that during Prohibition, Al Capone and his rumrunners stopped in.
One of the regular performing groups was the Murray Williams Quartet. Williams was an accomplished New York City musician (flute and clarinet) when his wife, Marjorie, persuaded him to move to Salt Lake City, her hometown.
Williams started playing gigs around town and eventually became part of the regular quartet that performed at the Manhattan Club, said his son Steve Williams, host of “Jazz Time with Steve Williams” on KCPW radio.
For many years, a photograph of his father — dressed in a suit and tie and holding a flute — hung in the club, he said. “I can’t believe how the Manhattan Club is etched into my life.”
While the Manhattan Club was elegant and sophisticated for the era, it also stood out for its food, said Emanuel “Manny” Floor, who was the director of the Utah Travel Council during the club’s heyday.
“Back then, there were only a few places you could go to get a great steak,” he said, “and the Manhattan Club was one of them.”
The food, the music, the speakeasy atmosphere and its spacious underground location combined to create a big-city aura in what was then a small, mostly conservative Utah town.
“The valet would park your car and you’d feel like you were in New York or Chicago or San Francisco,” said Floor. Except that the Utah liquor laws at the time required guests to “brown bag” or bring in their own booze.
The Hatsis family ran the club for nearly 50 years. Floor attributed its success to the brothers, who were charming hosts and knew the importance of customer service, greeting guests at the door and addressing them by their first name.
By the time the Hatsis family got out of the business, supper clubs were going out of style and diners had moved on to other forms of entertainment. Other entrepreneurs took over the space and offered hip-hop and R&B music and even salsa and merengue dancing. None endured like the Manhattan.
For the most part, the bar space has been vacant for nearly a decade — except for a four-month stint as an 18-and-older dance venue. Then, a few months ago, Eccleston and Willis decided it was the best place to open Quarters Arcade Bar.
The game-themed watering hole will have pinball machines, Skee-Ball, board games and new and retro video games — think Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. Arcade bars are a trend across the country, they say, as everyone from baby boomers to millennials tries to recapture the nostalgic games of youth.
“It’s playful, it’s fun, it’s different,” Eccleston said of the bar, which also will have a menu of craft cocktails and local beers. The owners, who received a liquor license last month from the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, have several years of bar experience — Eccleston at Bar X, Willis at Tinwell. Because the location has a kitchen, a restaurant is likely in the future.
As part of the remodel, the pair plans to restore the Manhattan Club’s outdoor neon sign. It will be hung in a private 1960s-themed room — called The Hat — that can be rented for private events.
Other pieces of the past will remain as well, including the old telephone booths, the white grand piano and a mural of the Big Apple in an alcove.
“We plan to pay homage to the bar that came before us,” Eccleston said.