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Ruth’s Diner is Salt Lake landmark

Visitors come from far and near to eat at restaurant

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When Geri Osman came to Salt Lake City for the first time to go skiing, she knew there was one place for sure she wanted to visit: Ruth's Diner.

Osman had read about the eatery in a book about diners to visit while traveling across the country and wanted to make sure she tried it out while she was in town. A few years later, Osman moved to Salt Lake City and was looking for a job. Seeing an advertisement for employment at Ruth's Diner, she came to apply and got herself a job at the diner she discovered through a book.

That was almost four years ago. Now Osman signs books of other travelers who have found the diner in the same way she did.

"It's an icon to come here. When people are traveling, they make it a destination to come here and have us sign their book," she said.

Ruth's Diner has not only become a destination for travelers from afar but also for local residents. This year the diner, located at 2500 Emigration Canyon, is celebrating 75 years of being in business. It's come a long way from its humble beginning as Ruth's Hamburgers in the old Meredith Building at 120 E. 200 South.

Erik Nelson, manager of Ruth's Diner for the past six years, has found it interesting to work in such a historical diner, especially in light of its feisty founder, Ruth Evans. He was acquainted with Evans but didn't know her well. She used to live in a small duplex behind the diner, which is now the restaurant office, and Nelson remembers walking by her house and being yelled at a couple of times.

"The diner's got a lot of history. I did know Ruth and she was quite a character. We take a lot of pride in keeping Ruth's name and history. She's still a big part of the diner even though she's passed on," he said.

Nelson first came to work at the diner in 1985 but left in 1987 to open his own restaurant. He came back in 1999 and has been there ever since. He said the diner fine-tuned the menu over the past year so it features only homestyle, comfort-type food.

"It's become an icon in Salt Lake City for the last 75 years," he said. "A lot of people have made it a part of their traditions to (visit) Ruth's Diner."

Evans is best remembered for her dogs, as she always had one or two American terriers, her vocabulary that could make even a sailor blush, her flowered sundresses and the unfiltered cigarette constantly hanging from her mouth, according to "The History of Emigration Canyon."

Evans started the small diner in 1930 as Ruth's Hamburgers. In 1946, she received notice that the Meredith Building had been sold and was scheduled for demolition in just two weeks. She purchased an old Utah Light and Traction Company trolley car and relocated her business to 1511 W. North Temple. Eight stools and four booths were installed, plus a small apartment for herself, and Ruth's Hamburgers was back in business.

However, Evans found she didn't like the west side, so in the spring of 1949, she purchased a vacant lot in Emigration Canyon and had the trolley car hauled up on a flatbed truck. The canyon was considered out of the mainstream then, so the business opportunity wasn't as good, but the living was better for Evans.

Many of Evans' customers at the diner over the years were the growing number of canyon residents who enjoyed it as part of canyon color and a good place to keep up on local gossip. Evans ran the diner single-handedly until she hit her 80s and then sold it to Curtis Oberhansly, one of the fraternity boys who used to frequent the diner. He ran the diner for 25 years until Phelps bought it.

Though not as colorful as Evans' adventures, current diner employees have developed their own memorable moments while working there. Trevor Hale, a diner employee for 7 1/2 years, said he remembers vividly the moment in late 2003 when a teenage kid crashed his car into the front door of the diner.

Hale had just brought a tray of food into the dining area, and when other employees heard the crash, they thought he had simply dropped his tray. Chaos broke out when the real reason for the crash was discovered.

Hale has chosen to stay at the diner for so long because of the people.

"It's a good place to work. Everyone who works here is great," he said. "That's why I'm still working here after seven years."

Nelson said they're planning a $500,000 renovation on the diner to redo the inside and remodel and update the kitchen to last for another 75 years. He said employees like the location.

"It's a beautiful place to work and a beautiful city," he said. "The employees really enjoy it. Seventy-five percent of them have been here five years or more."

E-mail: twalquist@desnews.com