Thursday, July 1, 2010

Are You Sure . . .

there’s a restaurant out here?

Ruth's Diner is unique--but its uniqueness cannot compare to that of its late owner.

As we are driving out Emigration Canyon Highway looking for Ruth’s Diner, I was reminded of a speaker I heard at an RV’ers seminar. He explained that he calls his GPS “Maggie Mae” since “Maggie Mae get you there or Maggie Mae not.” (This may be an old joke, but it was new to me.) As we looked at the high canyon walls and inhabitant-free landscape, I couldn’t believe that one of Salt Lake City’s most popular restaurants was anywhere in the neighborhood. Then we rounded a curve and before us was a parking lot filled with cars. Welcome to weekend breakfast at Ruth’s Diner. Do you remember the line from Field of Dreams – “If you build it they will come?” Well, in the case of Ruth’s, if you move it here, they will find it.

Ruth passed away in November of 1989 at the age of 94. From the Diner's web page: "She was a great story teller--a spirited woman whose language could make a gangster blush.

"As a young woman, Ruth performed in some of the bars around Salt Lake City as a cabaret singer from about 1912 to 1916. She tells of being dragged off the stage one night by a jealous woman with a fierce grip on her hair. Ruth recovered quickly and 'the biddy regretted herself for some time to come.'

"In 1930, she started the diner as Ruth's Hamburgers downtown. At some point her location was directly across the street from a very small house of ill repute, and Ruth (her image is shown on the T shirt, right) kept a keen eye on the doings across the way. She fed the girls and listened to their stories about various police, politicians, judges, and other clients.

"After many years of flipping burgers downtown, her building was sold and demolished. So she bought a Salt Lake Trolley car and moved it up Emigration Canyon where she reopened in 1949. Ruth built an apartment onto the back of her trolley car (it's now the lower dining area and kitchen) and lived on the property alone with her little Chihuahua dogs for almost forty years.

As we approached this renovated trolley car, we saw that the front patio was filled with waiting diners. We went inside to get our names on the wait list and discovered the small entry alcove was also full and that there would be a thirty-minute wait for a table. This had better be good! And it was.

One of the first things you notice is how clean and bright the place is. Then you notice the numerous “Best of Salt Lake City Breakfast” awards hanging from the wall. Is it important that the awards appeared to end in the early 2000’s? What was missing was the de rigueur Guy Fieri poster indicating that Ruth’s Diner had been featured on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Drives.”

"Ruth was extremely independent. She often said, 'I don't know about this women's lib stuff, I always took good care of myself.' But Ruth did make two concessions in her life that we know of. When she turned eighty, she switched from Lucky Strikes to a filtered cigarette, and she finally placated the health department by posting a hand written sign on the wall next to the door which read 'No Smoking Section - First Bar Stool Only.'

Ruth’s is famous for their chocolate malted pudding and the fried mac and cheese appetizer. Yes, you read that right. A large serving of mac and cheese is rolled in crumbs, deep fat fried, and served with marinara sauce. But this was breakfast, and while I am not known to shy away from fried food at any time of the day, this might be too much.

"During the 50's and 60's, Ruth's became a familiar stop for the fraternity boys looking for a cold beer and some local color. ID's weren't carefully checked since Ruth didn't think any more of that law than she did the new smoking ordinances. 'They can enforce their own laws!' Her dogs were just as spirited as she was. The Chihuahuas tried to bite any customers they didn't know, with a special sweet tooth for those frat boys.

"Ruth lived out her last years in the duplex behind the diner. One of our waitresses paid Ruth a visit after her shift. She sat down on the couch, but felt something hard. She reached between the cushions and found a gun. She said, 'Ruth, this gun is loaded!'

"Ruth replied, 'Well, it wouldn't do me any damn good if it wasn't.' The occasion for the visit was Ruth's 90th birthday."

The breakfast menu (the cover is shown on the right) includes: the standard eggs, potatoes, and meat combinations; omelets including a crab and avocado; something called Migas, which is a combination of scrambled eggs, chorizo, onion, green pepper, and corn tortillas; corned beef hash and eggs; Sunrise Spuds with hash browns, mushrooms, cheddar cheese, pico de gallo, and guacamole; variations on Eggs Benedict including a Salmon Benedict, a Pulled Pork Benedict, the classic Eggs Benedict, and Eggs Florentine with spinach, onion, and mushroom cheese sauce.

We read the menu and placed our orders.

Tomorrow the results of those orders.

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