Blue Plate Diner closes doors after 20 yearsMay 12, 2021 12h02 ● By Justin Adams
A view of the diner’s entrance. (Daniel Smith/City Journals)
By Daniel Smith | [email protected]
From its origin as a juice bar, to its transformation into an award-winning “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives”-worthy restaurant, the Blue Plate Diner has achieved an almost legendary status throughout its 20 years on the corner of 2100 South and 2100 East. This May, the diner will be permanently closing its doors.
John Bouzek, who at the time was working as a food sales representative, moved from Chicago to Salt Lake City in the 1990s, and, according to co-owner Joe Mandl, “fell in love with the place, and for some reason, opened up a juice bar.” Named “Juice, etc.” the juice bar lasted roughly five years. Frustrated with the early hours, high levels of spoilage, and demanding workload that come along with juicing, Bouzek sold the business. However, he soon acquired it back and decided to turn it into a diner.
But Bouzek’s new diner needed a name. One of his favorite restaurants in Chicago bore the name “Blue Plate.” Seeing that there were no businesses in Salt Lake City of the same name, Bouzek figured it would be a good name for his restaurant.
Some three years later, Mandl moved to Utah from Southern California to snowboard on Utah’s famous slopes. Beginning at Blue Plate as a server, Mandl worked his way up to co-owner. “That was 17 years ago,” Mandl said. He has been a co-owner of the restaurant ever since.
Throughout the years, not too much has changed at Blue Plate. Modeled after Salinas Drug—a drugstore once located in Salinas, Utah—Blue Plate’s aesthetic has remained consistent. The mid-century-style counter located just inside the entrance (which was bought from Salinas Drug), the vintage barstools, and the memorabilia and antiques which decorate the walls and shelves, work together to create an environment which is at once nostalgic and inviting.
Blue Plate’s menu has been almost as unwavering as its appearance, though there have been notable additions and retractions. “It hasn’t really changed,” Mandl said. “We’ve always kind of been predominantly breakfast.” But when they first started, many people were coming in for home-cooked dinners. When the diner was a strictly local, smaller operation, 90% of the menu items were made in-house. “At one point, we were making our own breading for our onion rings,” Mandl said.
Even amidst the rising popularity, they have managed to maintain a commitment to fresh products. “Seventy-five percent of our menu is still made in-house. We make our corn beef from scratch,” Mandl said. “We buy dry beans and cook them” instead of opting for the less labor-intensive option of serving beans from a can.
“Being here 20 years, we’ve weathered many a storm,” Mandl said. “I’ve watched restaurants come and go. I’ve watched people make it and people not make it. It’s like watching a time lapse on your phone.” He noted that he had watched at least 15 businesses cycle through the building occupying the corner opposite Blue Plate.
While Mandl attributes some of the restaurant’s success to the quality of the food they serve, he also thinks they have managed to thrive for so many years on account of their flexibility and friendliness. “You open a restaurant, you have an idea, and then it becomes completely, 100% experimental,” he said. They were constantly adding items to the menu. Mandl said that, “At one point, prior to COVID, we were at over 100 items,” resulting in a menu which was “over four pages long.” Blue Plate’s willingness to adapt is complemented by a homey, comfortable milieu. “We look at everybody as a friend that comes over to dinner at your house.”
But over the course of the last couple of years, Mandl and Bouzek started to wonder if it was time to say goodbye to their diner. For one, after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, they were compelled to cut back their dinner hours, closing at 2 p.m. instead of the previous 9 p.m. The menu shrunk to reflect the reduction in hours.
Secondly, Mandl and Bouzek have been approached with many offers to buy the property. “People have been trying to develop this corner for five-plus years, maybe even 10. We’ve held out for a long time.” The co-owners were finally approached by an offer they felt good about, partially because they are familiar with the developers and their work, and are confident that the space will be put to good use.
The development plan involves tearing down the building, which has been around since the 1950s, and erecting a multi-level, multi-use structure in its place. Commercial and retail developments will occupy the ground floor. The rest will be set aside for apartments.
While Mandl and Bouzek will have more time to direct attention to their other joint business endeavors, it’s clear that Blue Plate has been an integral part of their lives for the last 20 years.
Mandl said that the thing he is most proud of regarding Blue Plate are all of the formative experiences which have taken place there. Mandl and Bouzek announced the restaurant’s closing on social media and were immediately flooded with comments from people reminiscing on the important life events which had transpired within Blue Plate’s walls. Whether it was meeting a spouse, becoming engaged, or a child’s graduation dinner, the co-owners were shocked at the number of memories in the comment sections of their posts.
“For there to be a couple posts of us announcing that we were closing on social media, and for there to be over 800 comments of people’s memories, is pretty amazing. That’s the most important thing,” Mandl said. “A lot of people actually, thoroughly love this diner. It’s kind of bizarre that we created something like that.” And, he added, “I’m sure nobody was saying that when Olive Garden went out of business.”