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Lightning flashes. Thunder rumbles through the air. The floor begins to vibrate. A palm tree crashes to the ground.

But this far-from-natural disaster delighted, instead of horrified, those who witnessed it.

The tropical storm that struck several times a night turned this eastside Salt Lake City restaurant into the go-to place for date nights and family outings.

Whatever happened to Johnny Quong's The Hawaiian?

The restaurant, located at 2920 Highland Drive, was popular throughout its run from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, and Johnny Quong considered it his masterpiece.

The Hawaiian's tropical theme was expressed in every facet of the decor — from teak and bamboo woods to tiki torches lighting the entryway.

The lavish displays were Quong's signature at every restaurant he owned.

"My dad loved to design stuff; he was very creative," said his daughter, Becky Quong Greer, who grew up in her father's restaurants, often working whatever job needed filling. "He wanted it over the top."

And that's just how he got it: The storm at The Hawaiian, the animatronic gorilla at King Quong and the ship deck and moving waves at Papa Quong's Pier 54.

"He didn't want his restaurants to look like the typical Chinese restaurants, which were all mom-and-pop shops at the time," Greer said. "He wanted to give diners more than just food — he wanted to give them an experience."

Greer's daughter, Jennifer Palmer, remembers her grandfather's bombastic style fondly.

"He loved to decorate, and the artistic expression," she said. "It was a magic place in my mind."

The Hawaiian was often filled with diners in their prom finery.

Quong's other restaurants included the Beach Boy restaurants and Johnny's Tiki Hut, where members of The Tribune sports staff often could be found after a long weekend night of covering prep sports.

His entry into the restaurant world was an unlikely one. Born in Canton, China, he moved to the United States after his father brought him to the country during the Depression. However, the 13-year-old Quong lived with his father's friends in California, and he kept running away. Eventually, he moved to Montana, where his father lived and ran a laundry.

Quong later enlisted in the military and served in World War II in India. He was an airplane mechanic and when his enlistment ended, he planned to go to mechanic's school in the West. On his way to school, though, he ended up in Ogden, where he met and fell in love with his future wife, Mary Yim.

He started working with some of his former military buddies in a food distribution company, providing fresh bean sprouts and other ingredients to local Chinese restaurants. He ended up buying out his buddies' shares of the company as the economy began to sputter.

One day, a man walked into the food distribution company and asked to try the chow mein they sold. Quong told him he could make it up in a kitchen in the back room. However, he didn't actually have a kitchen. Instead, he ran to a nearby Chinese restaurant and bought the chow mein he distributed to them.

It was the first time he served food to a customer directly, and he was hooked.

"He liked to explore new recipes," Greer said.

The Hawaiian was Quong's masterpiece. While he owned the building, he didn't own the land underneath it. When his lease came up, he decided he needed to close it, due to health issues stemming from diabetes. The restaurant was eventually converted into a Veterans Of Foreign Wars hall.

Quong worked at his other restaurants for a few more years before retiring, and spent his final years with Greer and her family in Nevada.

"He loved cooking," said Palmer, his granddaughter. "He was always tinkering in the kitchen and cooking us special dishes."

Quong died on Sept. 19, 1999. But his legacy still lives on in the memories of Utah diners.

Twitter: @sheena5427 —

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