Ruth’s Diner History

Welcome to Ruth’s Diner. 2015 marks our eighty-sixth anniversary and makes us the second oldest Restaurant in Utah. Unfortunately, Ruth didn’t live to see it. She passed away in November of 1989 at the age of 94.  She was a great story teller–a spirited woman whose language could make a gangster blush–and what follows are a few stories from her life as observed by friends or told by Ruth herself.

As a young woman, she was very handsome. The pictures on the wall of the diner show that much. 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 in the Meredith Building at 120 East Second South. At some point her location was directly across the street from a very small house of ill repute and Ruth 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.

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.”

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.

By then, Ruth had already sold the Diner (back in 1977) to one of those frat boys, Curtis Oberhansly, who wasn’t nearly as good at story telling, much less cabaret singing, but he did own the Diner for 25 years through 2001 when he sold it.  It has again changed hands and Tracy and Erik Nelson who have been associated with the Diner for many years are the proud new owners.