- Associated Press - Sunday, April 20, 2014

BILOXI, Miss. (AP) - Mary Mahoney thought it was the worst thing that could happen when the new owner forced her out of the lounge she’d operated at the Tivoli Hotel, yet it turned out to be the best thing for her family and Biloxi.

Mahoney, her husband and brother turned a $13,000 loan and an empty building believed to be the oldest in the city into Mary Mahoney's Old French House Restaurant.

It took two years and the sale of the Carolyn - a shrimp boat her brother Andrew Cvitanovich owned - to finish the renovations, but the restaurant debuted May 7, 1964.

In celebration of the 50th anniversary, Mary Mahoney’s family, who continue to operate the restaurant, will donate all food and beverage sales May 7 to St. Vincent de Paul Pharmacy and Biloxi’s Loaves and Fishes.

The Old French House architecture is charming and the Southern cuisine consistently memorable over 50 years, but what gained the restaurant its nationally known persona was Mary.

Dressed in evening attire and wearing her trademark butterfly glasses - she had them in pearl, black and white - Mary made the restaurant her stage. She moved from scene to scene in each dining room, where people celebrated special events and savored their favorite dishes.

Mahoney didn’t consider them customers. “Just new friends and old friends,” said her son Bobby Mahoney Jr., who continues that welcoming tradition with his sister Eileen Mahoney Ezell.

Pictures, documents and art on every wall of the restaurant provide a visual diary of Mary and Bob Mahoney and the restaurant. A telegram to Mary from President John F. Kennedy - Mary and Bob Mahoney attended his inauguration - is displayed among front pages of three major newspapers with the story of the president’s assassination.

Plaques let people know they are being seated in the dining room in which Paul Newman, Denzel Washington and other celebrities dined.

Bobby Mahoney said regulars tell him, “I don’t come here to eat. I come here for the experience.”

Center to that experience is Mary’s family. Four generations have now worked at the restaurant and contributed to its success. Tony Cvitanovich took over operations from his father, and his sister Andrea Osman, handles marketing and landscaping. The grandchildren contribute in other areas throughout the restaurant.

The family continues to serve choice steaks, fresh Gulf seafood with rich sauces and their famed gumbo, which was on the original menu.

“We ship it all over the country for gifts,” Ezell said of the gumbo.

A “happy package” arrives every Christmas at the home of John Grisham, who wrote about Mary Mahoney’s in two of his books.

The gumbo recipe is the masterpiece of original chef Elijah Scott, said his grandson Marshall Johnson, who Mary hired as a server 44 years ago.

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