Owner Shawn Welch (right) and waitress Brenda Balsley share a laugh at the Moab Grill’s counter. [Photo by Travis Holtby/ Moab Sun News]

There are few better places to contemplate big life choices than in the back of a speeding Cadillac on the way to a ZZ Top concert.

Shawn Welch discovered this in October of 2011 when she decided, while en route to see the legendary Billy Gibbons and company, to buy the Moab Grill. Though Welch’s decision may have been one of the few life choices ever made based on ZZ Top that didn’t involve facial hair, a year into the decision, she couldn’t be happier with it.

“(Running the Moab Grill) has been everything that I hoped it would be,” Welch said.

Though deciding to purchase the Moab Grill on that chilly fall day was a leap of faith, Welch was certainly no stranger to the restaurant.

On Easter Sunday in 1978, three days after she first arrived in Moab, Ron and Joyce Robertson hired Welch as a waitress at the grill. The Robertsons were the first owners of the restaurant, which opened its doors to the public as the Golden Stake in 1968.

The job was a great fit, so on and off over the next 13 years, Welch donned the Golden Stake’s waitress uniform.

“We had to wear little black nylon waitress dresses with a little white apron, it was great. Some of my happiest memories are in this building,” Welch said.

Rick Burgess, one of the cooks Welch worked with in those early years, is still there today. The shared past of these two old friends has helped them work together over the last year to turn the Moab Grill into what it is today.

“I couldn’t have done it without Rick,” Welch said.

Burgess, a rare constant in an industry with a notoriously high turnover, began working at the Golden Stake when he was just 13 years old. After three months scrubbing dishes he was promoted to cook.

“I never had the desire to cook till they threw me in there on Easter weekend,” Burgess said.

But he quickly came around, and in the more than four decades that Burgess has been serving up Moab Grill’s famous French toast and rib eye steaks, he has seen it all. Over the years he has fed everyone from movie stars like Richard Boone and Peter Strauss, to the Queen of Belgium, to a group of Playboy Bunnies who came in for dinner after their shoot just a few months ago.

But the biggest change that Burgess has seen in the Moab Grill has been the renovations that Welch has done since she took over last year. In the last year, with the help of Larry Campbell, Aaron Laverly and lots of others, the entire kitchen has been renovated and expanded, Welch said. The dining rooms have received a major upgrade as well.

Despite these renovations, Welch has made it a point to keep the same feel at the grill that she fell in love with when she first put on that black nylon dress more than 30 years ago. “I want it to be a traditional coffee shop and steak house. That’s what it was in the past and that’s what I want to keep it,” Welch said.

It seems to be working. Welch is pleased with the mix of locals and tourists who come through the doors.

“I really like it, it feels so American and the food is great,” said Pablo Toral, a tourist from Spain who had the western omelet for breakfast.

Though she never planned on owning a restaurant, Welch now can’t imagine her life without it.

“I plan to stay here till I retire, I don’t know where else I would go,” she said with a laugh. “I genuinely love the people of Moab and I want to have a place for them to come.”