Remembering John Williams of Gastronomy

John Williams, the restaurateur who founded the New Yorker and Market Street restaurants, is being mourned by the Salt Lake community.
The sudden, tragic death of Salt Lake restaurateur John Williams is being mourned by the many lives he touched.

The sudden, tragic death of Gastronomy Inc.’s John Williams has hit Utah’s restaurant community pretty hard.

His legacy is more than good food in the beautiful old buildings that he renovated. It’s in the goodwill he generated in the city, and it’s in the hundreds of restaurant employees who got their start at Gastronomy, Inc. and went on to successful careers in the industry.

I knew Williams only professionally; I know nothing of  estranged spouse, Craig Crawford, accused of setting the house fire that likely caused Williams’ death. Most of us may never know the full circumstances of this horrific event; we’re only left to wonder why.

But here’s what I do know, after many interviews with Williams while I was a newspaper food editor. Williams and his business partner, Tom Sieg, were trailblazers in putting Salt Lake City on the culinary map when they opened The New Yorker back in 1978.

That restaurant eventually spawned the Gastronomy chain of eateries, which included  Market Street Grills, Oyster Bars and fish markets; as well as the now-closed Baci Trattoria, and Cafe Pierpont.

When Williams won Salt Lake Magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Dining in 2005, I joked that you could play something like the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game, where any Salt Lake City restaurant or chef could be linked to Williams and Gastronomy in six steps or less.

In fact, Williams once told me that more than 100 restaurants in Utah have been started by former employees of Gastronomy.

“It seems like we’ve trained and educated a lot of people in the hospitality industry in the state of Utah,” he said at the time.  “We take great pride in the fact that they got their start here; hopefully because of that the whole level of cuisine has gotten better.”

For instance, Pete and Kym Buttschardt, founders of Union Grill and the Roosters brewpub in Ogden, were college students at the U when they met while working at Market Street Broiler.

Dave Prows, former corporate chef of Rumbi Island Grill and Costa Vida restaurant chains, and former executive chef at Little America, started out in Gastronomy kitchens.

Williams had a healthy respect for his customers. He warned other restaurateurs, “Never sell the people here in Salt Lake City short, they have as high a level of sophistication as anyone.”

Built at at the turn of the 20th century, The New York Hotel on 60 Market St. had fallen on hard times by the 1970s. The lower floor was home to the Salvation Army Soup Kitchen and a print shop. John Williams, a student of architecture, and Tom Sieg, a member of the Utah Heritage Foundation, could see new life for it.

“I lived across the street, and I loved to cook and did a lot of dinner parties,” recalled Williams in a past interview. “We would look over at that building and comment on what a beautiful facade it was, and what a beautiful restaurant it could be. I thought it would be a good time to get into the real-estate industry.”

After remodeling the building, a spot was leased to the New York Pasta Co., a concept similar to the Spaghetti Factory,  that never took off. Sieg thought the timing was right for a fine-dining restaurant with full-service liquor. He and Williams kicked around possible names — The Knickerbocker was one — but settled on The New Yorker due to its location in the cellar of the New York Hotel.

Many people might not know that the beautiful banquette seats in The New Yorker were originally from the old Hotel Utah Sky Room (now the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).  John Williams told me that when the Hotel Utah was being remodeled, the banquettes were made available to them by the late Izzy Wagner, who was then on the Hotel Utah Board of Directors.

The New Yorker opened its doors in 1978 with 200 club members. Because Williams loved fresh fish and Sieg’s grandmother, Stella, had a great recipe for chicken-fried steak, these headed the menu. They arranged to have Western Airlines (before it became Delta) fly in shipments of fresh salmon.

Fresh salmon was a signature item at Market Street Grill.
Fresh salmon became a signature item at the New Yorker and Market Street Grill restaurants.

“Nobody else was doing it in Utah,” Williams told me. “The first summer, that salmon did about 60 percent of our sales. That gave us the encouragement to open up the seafood restaurant upstairs.”

Adding Tom Guinney to the partnership, the trio opened Market Street Grill in 1980, followed by the Oyster Bar in 1981, Market Street Broiler in 1983, Cafe Pierpont in 1986, Baci in 1989, Market Street Cottonwood in 2000, and Market Street South Jordan about 2007.

But every idea wasn’t a hit. When they first opened Market Street Broiler in the spring of 1983, the owners envisioned a casual seafood spot like the Crab Cooker in Newport Beach, where mesquite-broiled fish was served casually on paper plates with plastic utensils. Customers liked the seafood, but expected china and silverware. By Christmas, the paper and plastic was gone, the china and silverware was in.

Williams also told me about their Chinese restaurant that failed. “It was about half the size as the restaurants we would normally build, because we thought we would make up the rest doing take-out delivery, but that turned out to be very expensive. After losing an even million dollars, we closed it. But our food concept, looking back, was similar to P.F. Chang’s, had we built the restaurant the same size as our other restaurants.”

Williams mentioned that he grew up as an Idaho farm boy, so he knew how to work hard…great training for the restaurant industry.

He also hired smart, savvy people like long-time marketing manager Mary Anne Farrier, who had her finger on the news pulse, and knew how to build relationships with reporters.

When new high-end restaurants began popping up around town, Williams sounded unperturbed.

“The best thing that has happened to us is the competition,” he told me in 2002. “They say it brings out the very best in you, and it has.”

Again, I was not a personal friend of John Williams, but just the same, I was the recipient of thoughtful gestures. One night my sister and I were leaving Market Street Cottonwood and saw that a rainstorm had come up. We were ready to make a run for the car, when John came over and insisted on escorting us with an umbrella. When I won a national writing award, John and the Gastronomy folks sent over a celebratory cake to my office.

And when I was one of 82 staffers laid off from the Deseret News, I received a card from John and the Gastronomy folks, with best wishes for my future. That gesture of goodwill did a lot to lift my spirits at a very hard time in my life.

Those of you who knew him are welcome to leave a comment sharing some of your own memories. I’m sure there are many.

John Williams, you are missed. And not forgotten.

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