Junior’s Tavern has been a haven for a diverse swath of Salt Lakers for five decades.
Founded in 1974 at 500 South and 200 East, in the Cannella’s building, it survived a significant transition when it moved to 30 E. Broadway in 2005.
The cozy local with jazz and blues on the stereo changed from a smoky “beer bar” – the only alcohol allowed was 3.2 beer – to a full bar license and a slightly more Downtown feel.
The owner-operator, Greg Arata, put his beer can collection up on the wall. The place didn’t look much like the old one, except for the bar and the booths. He lost some customers, but added others. And revenue increased, thanks to the new liquor license.
Arata’s sale of the business to another local bar owner and restauranteur, Bob McCarthy, was finalized on Thursday.
We spent a couple of afternoons at the bar this week (this is a good job), talking to regulars and the new owner to collect reflections, gauge the feeling in the room, and see what McCarthy has in mind for his new place.
‘Much more than a bar’
Accolades for the bar’s outgoing owner-operator Greg Arata have been pouring from glass to glass since a week ago Friday, when he worked his last shift.
The people that Arata brought together included a diverse cross section of Utah society. While moving away from the Cannella’s building and the courthouse and jail meant fewer lawyers and judges, people from new demographics and professions were flavoring the mix. After the move to 300 South, the traffic from City Hall continued, and construction workers, restaurant industry workers, workers from nearby media outlets as well as local literati and creatives, like Ken Sanders the bookseller, Trent Harris the filmmaker, and Will Bagley the historian were regulars.
Long-time regular Allen Chapman, a self-described “Mormon intellectual refugee,” told us “There are so few bars where you can talk.”
“You know that old pearl you were told years ago – ‘Don’t talk politics, don’t talk religion’ – in Junior’s you talked politics and you talked religion. And there weren’t many fistfights.”
“It’s a strange little bar, and it’s a strange little bar because Greg was never ambitious. He was happy to keep a quiet bar without drug dealers, without craziness, without having a bouncer.”
That uniqueness is clearly what brought a lot of people to Greg Arata’s Juniors. Chapman told us the story of his introduction to the old place next to Cannella’s.
“It was 1977-78. I was at the library several times a week, and I noticed this bar on the corner. One Saturday I go over to see what’s in there. And in the bar was the bartender, George I think, and Murphy”- a Kennecott employee who in retirement had become a fixture, a “very interesting guy with a booming voice and a handlebar mustache.”
“They were there at the bar with the dictionary between them. And my first thought is, what is this, a bar with a dictionary?”
“And not only that, but they’re looking up Fabianism” – a variant of socialism from the late 1800s most famously promoted by the Englishman George Bernard Shaw. “And of course I knew what that was, and I explained it to them as best I could.”
“That was my kind of place, and still is.”
Angela Johnson, a kitchen manager at a nearby sandwich shop, told us that “The bartenders make the bar.” Arata was known to hang onto his employees, and friendships between people across the bar were also common.
Johnson had come in, she said, to see the usual Friday afternoon barkeep, “my Mikey,” who was out sick, so she and I had the chance to reflect on Arata and his legacy.
“I’m excited for Greg. I think he’s an amazing person, such a good-hearted man and he put a lot into this place. I’ve seen him be here every single day. He loved his customers and loved this street and loved Salt Lake.”
Johnson, like many, have marked life cycle changes in Arata’s bar. “This is my spot. I don’t spend a lot of time here but it’s where I met my fiancée, so Junior’s is a big part of my life, my story.” She lives and works on Broadway, so the bar is a convenient stop.
Guy Warner, who Arata called “the Mayor of Junior’s,” can be frequently found with his laptop working his software engineering job from a barstool. “This is my front room,” he told me.
I asked him what he thought the bar would lose with Arata leaving.
“Hopefully nothing. The fear is to lose the soul of the bar. The way Greg treated people. Not only all of us, the clientele, but the way he put his people first. I think that trickled down to the people that came into the bar. From all walks of life – servers, multi-millionaires, could all sit down at this bar and all be equals and talk, and I’ve never seen another bar like that.”
“I think it was the way Greg interacted with us and made us fall in love with this place.”
Warner pointed out that “Greg was the first non-family to meet my youngest child, when she was born and we came home, he immediately drove over to our condo and dropped off a gift and met my daughter.”
Like Johnson’s experience, relationships built at Juniors have had a big impact of Warner’s life.
Pointing toward the “North Enders,” regulars who sit at the corner of the bar closest to the door, Warner noted “I’ve known those guys down there for 5 to 10 years. They became ‘friends friends’ and we do things like go camping. It’s more than just a bar – I’ve made life-long friendships.”
Allen Chapman commented on another side of the atmosphere created by Arata – welcoming to all, as long as you didn’t bother anybody else.
“The old bar had a broader class of people that it does now. You had lawyers, judges, guys getting out of the jail – and the perpetual rumor in the jailhouse was when you got out of jail at Junior’s you’d get a free beer and a phone call.”
Chapman continued, “There were a lot of Indians in the bar, I’m not sure why. It’s likely they felt comfortable there. And it was always a bar where gays were welcome and Blacks and Hispanics were welcome. And there weren’t many bars in the 1970s that did that.”
What changes are coming?
There’s a climate of uncertainty and fear shared by fans of Greg’s Junior’s that the new owner-operator, Bob McCarthy, understands.
McCarthy founded Stoneground Italian Kitchen in 2000 at 239 E. 400 South, still in operation, and in 2008 transformed a divey beer bar adjacent to North Salt Lake’s oil refineries into the Garage on Beck, a well-reviewed music venue, restaurant and bar.
McCarthy plans changes to Juniors, but gradually and very much in the spirit of the original.
“I know the vibe when I walked in here 25 years ago and it felt like I was back home. I want to uncover that again and bring it to the surface” he told us.
His first construction project will be building out the patio and putting in a garage door for access, a project scheduled for summer.
McCarthy has experience in integrating his concepts and changes into an already existing establishment. He says he spent years getting to know some of the regulars at the Garage, and he plans to do the same at Junior’s. He’s pledged to run changes by the North Enders before making them.
McCarthy spoke of adding a small stage, keeping Arata’s beer can collection in place, and making small aesthetic and lighting changes.
“When you come in here in Christmas it’ll be like 1970s Christmas.” He described it as “breathing new life” into the room.
“I want this to be the neighborhood bar,” which is very much the current feel of the place.
“It’s also the place of misfits, outcasts, rebels,” McCarthy expressed. “We’ll have a little free library with all the beatnik artists – Edward Abbey, Tom Waits, Bukowski. This is an intellectual bar. People come here to read, they talk, they communicate.”
“I want to introduce the town to these very interesting people. That’s what I did at the Garage.”
Chapman, the longest-serving regular I could find, says he’s open to McCarthy’s ideas. “Yes, he wants to make some changes, but they don’t seem to be a big deal.”
Like most regulars I talked to, Chapman was withholding judgment. “We’ll see.”
I told him that McCarthy wants to introduce the rest of the city to the people of Junior’s.
In a modest fashion appropriate to the unpretentious nature of the establishment, Chapman mused, “I’m not sure the rest of the city is interested.”
Bob McCarthy is betting that they are.
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