The couple renamed it Johnny Pappas Steak House, and set about serving hearty sandwiches and steaks to customers. He cooked and she was the waitress. At the time, Interstate 15 had yet to be built, and cars and trucks were constantly stopping across the street at Slim Olson's, with its 43 pumps, the largest truck stop in the country.
"There were no other businesses. It was just Slim Olson's and us and orchards all around," remembered Kitty Pappas, who still wears a white-collared waitress uniform reminiscent of the era. "All the truckers who came up this highway stopped in. We were open seven days a week, 24 hours a day."
The restaurant used to have a dance floor, and on the weekends the Pappases would hire a three-piece band. Customers would brown bag bring their own booze and buy setups and french fries.
When Pappas had her first child, daughter Maryann, she told Johnny she was going to quit to take care of the baby. The hard-working Greek man knew he needed his wife to help run the business, so he promptly built a house attached to the back of the restaurant. The family added two more children, John Jr. and George.
Then, in 1963, at age 49, Johnny Pappas died of cancer, leaving Pappas with three children and bills to pay. She immediately became head cook and owner.
"I thought I'd keep working until I got caught up," she said. "By then, it was a habit and I just kept going."
In 1981, she changed the name of the restaurant to Kitty Pappas Steak House. Today, the restaurant is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday, and Pappas stills lives out back.
'Crazy George's' rules • You can't write about Kitty Pappas Steak House without mentioning two of the hand-cut steaks on the menu: the 20-ounce sirloin, large enough to fill a plate and feed a family of four for $20.45; and the half sirloin, which is 10 to 12 ounces ($13.45), and still large enough to make a meal the next day.
Whatever you do, don't ask to split the full steak or George Pappas the Pappases' youngest son will call you a cheap SOB. Jokingly, of course.
You also can't write about Kitty Pappas' place without mentioning "Crazy George," as everyone calls him. A signature sign with his nickname emblazoned in neon is immediately visible when you walk in the restaurant.
George Pappas, too, is easy to spot, thanks to his tie-dyed shirts, peace-sign necklace and quick wit. And he rules the back dining room with his amusing personality. (View our video of "Crazy George" in action at sltrib.com.) Regulars follow these rules to keep him happy and avoid a tongue-lashing:
1. Don't ask for steak sauce: It just ruins a good piece of meat, says George, who also hand-cuts the steaks.
2. Order the Roquefort dressing. It's Kitty Pappas' original recipe and a source of family pride.
3. Note the musical selections available on a classic jukebox, which is filled with an eclectic collection of rock music from Grateful Dead to Dread Zeppelin.
4. Order one of the homemade desserts, as Kitty Pappas makes everything from cakes to cheesecakes from scratch.
'We do not accept debit or credit cards' • Justin Wilson, who works nearby, eats at the restaurant two or three times a month. "I like the food and the ambience," he said, glancing around at the old-fashioned bar, the black-and-white photographs and the original push-button cash register that the Pappases bought a few years after opening. The restaurant still takes payment only via cash or checks.
For a recent lunch, Wilson ordered a steak. On other days, he'll have the signature egg burger: a regular hamburger with lettuce, tomatoes, onions and cheese topped with a fried egg.
Wes Johnson remembers eating at Kitty Pappas' restaurant as a child. His father, Bill Johnson, owned the Menlove Dodge Toyota dealership directly south of the restaurant and regularly treated his son to a hamburger. In high school, young Johnson and his friends would stop in for cheeseburgers. Later, when Johnson worked for his father, he would eat lunch at the steak house with the rest of the sales staff.
"I've been going there for more than 40 years," said Johnson, who claims the most noteworthy thing about the restaurant is its nostalgic feel which hasn't changed for decades.
"The antique phone booth, the front door, the front counter and the back dining room it looks the same way and has the same feel," said Johnson, who has since sold the Toyota dealership and runs Menlove Rent to Own in North Salt Lake.
At one time, Johnson's father tried to buy out Pappas to expand. "She just kicked my dad out of there," he remembers.
When the car dealership's new owners, a group out of Cincinnati, took over a few years ago, they tried to do the same thing. "I told them, 'Good luck with that,' " Johnson said.
Just keep on moving • Even though Pappas is on the premises from 6 a.m. when she starts baking desserts until closing around 10 p.m., customers don't get to see her a lot.
"I stay in the kitchen mainly," she said. "But I'll come out when it's slow or an old-timer comes in to say hello."
You only have to talk to her for a short time to know she's a bit of a jokester. For instance, just ask her how old she is. "I'm not going to tell you that," she says, matter-of-factly. "Of course, it should be pretty easy to figure out if we've been open 65 years."
Yet the businesswoman softens when she talks about her customers. "I've had fifth generations come in that's astounding," she said. "It's flattering to think they enjoy it enough to come back."
Even the restaurant's longtime waitress, JoLayne Thompson, is amazed at how Pappas can continue to work and have such a good attitude.
"She's always in there cooking and never complains except when I'm late," Thompson said. "Time hasn't caught up with her because she doesn't stop."
That, of course, is Pappas' plan. "If I keep moving fast enough," she said. "Maybe it won't get me quite as quick."
Kitty Pappas Steak House
The Woods Cross restaurant is celebrating 65 years in business this week. Stop by and try a steak or the signature egg burger.
Where • 2300 Highway 89, Woods Cross; 801-295-9981
Open • Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.