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John Speros, who grew up working at Lamb's Grill Cafe and took over as owner in 1985, has sold the venerable Salt Lake City icon to Francis Liong, a restaurateur from Southern California.
As Utah's oldest continually operating restaurant, Lamb's is known as a gathering place for politicians, power brokers, lawyers, business people and longtime diners accustomed to down-home comfort foods.
The decision to sell the historic restaurant was difficult, said Speros, but he made up his mind after Liong promised to retain all 30 staff members and preserve tenure and benefits.
"It was the honorable thing to do, and it meant a lot to me,"Speros said.
Liong, 55, spent most of his career at Chaya Brasserie, a chain of fine-dining restaurants located in historic areas of Southern California and San Francisco.
Yuta Tsunoda, president of the parent company Eugene and Associates, said Liong started out as a waiter nearly 30 years ago when Chaya Brasserie opened in Beverly Hills. Liong worked his way up to general manager, learning every aspect of the industry.
"He is very personable, a hands-on man," said Tsunoda. "He is not a calculated person, more of a heart-and-soul individual. And working so long in Hollywood, he is used to spotlight situations."
The ambience at Chaya Brasserie has been described as causally elegant much like the venerable Lamb's.
When a reviewer once took Lamb's to task for its outdated decor, Speros made no excuses. He said many customers preferred the same high-backed booths, wainscot and black bar which brought back childhood memories from when their parents or grandparents took them out to eat.
"Lamb's was there before the Convention Center, Abravanel Hall and the Gallivan Center what is considered downtown Salt Lake City was conceived and planned at Lamb's cafe," said Pat Shea, an attorney, former chairman of the state Democratic Party and a political dealmaker for the past 30 years. "I hope that Lamb's continues as an ecumenical watering hole where decision makers feel comfortable addressing Salt Lake City and Utah's future."
The birth of the 2002 Winter Games also started at Lamb's when then Salt Lake Tribune publisher Jack Gallivan, Salt Lake Chamber President Max Rich and Gov. Cal Rampton first put together a simple plan, writing on the back of a napkin, said Mike Korologos, former media liaison for the Salt Lake Olympic Committee.
"I hope that tradition of deal making continues at Lamb's," he said. "That and the lamb shank special every Thursday."
Liong promised to retain the dining style that customers expect.
"I want to get to know customers, find out what they like and their dislikes," said Liong on Friday, hours after signing the sales deal. "I will make changes, but they will be gradual. I want to build on the trust that has made Lamb's such a part of Utah's history."
The history began in 1919 when Greek immigrant George P. Lamb opened the cafe in Logan on George Washington's birthday. When he moved to the historic Herald Building in Salt Lake City in 1939, he took along a portrait of George Washington a present years earlier from then-Gov. George Dern. The portrait still hangs in the restaurant's main dining room.
When Lamb became ill in 1939, Speros' father Ted stepped in to manage the restaurant. The two later became partners on a handshake.
John Speros, 67, began working at the restaurant when he was 10 years old, and through the years he and his father cooked up recipes like the signature barbecued lamb shanks and popular Greek breads. Ted Speros sold the restaurant to his adult children, John and Estelle Speros Kevitch in 1977, and John bought his sister's interest in 1985.
John Speros' plans are to spend time with his wife "because for too many years I was married to the restaurant."
Liong has his own connections to Utah. He has long traveled here to visit relatives of his wife, the former Joan Barlow. The couple wee so intent on relocating to Salt Lake City that they bought a home before purchasing Lamb's. They have two children, Gabriella, 8, and 11-year-old Logan, named for Joan's hometown.
Lamb's Grill Cafe
Address • 169 S. Main St., Salt Lake City
Founded • 1919 in Logan
Moved • To Salt Lake's historic Herald Building in 1939
Hours • Weekdays 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Menu • American traditional, fish, broiled rack of lamb, steaks, salads, sandwiches