- 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.

“She was the first woman I ever worked for,” he said.

Over the years he’s served presidents, celebrities and generations of Gulf Coast families with equal aplomb. Johnson went on many of the six trips to Washington when Mary Mahoney’s brought her dishes to legislators, though he missed the 1984 trip when Mary was one of seven caterers invited to serve President Ronald Reagan on the White House lawn.

The restaurant has had just two chefs in 50 years. Georgo Trojanovich, Mary’s cousin from Croatia, came to Biloxi when he was 15. He went to school to learn English and into Mary Mahoney’s kitchen to learn Scott’s recipes, which he is still preparing along with Half Lobster Georgo and his original dishes.

Mary, who died in 1985 at age 61, had said she hoped her success inspired others to achieve more. Her son said she was an ambassador, always promoting Biloxi and Mississippi. She was the first woman in Mississippi to be named Small Business Person of the Year in 1982 and the first woman to be named president of the Biloxi Chamber of Commerce in 1985. The Mary Mahoney Memorial Scholarship was created in her memory at Purdue University.

Mary epitomized everything that is outstanding in the hospitality-restaurant industry,” Herman Zaccarelli, director of the university’s Restaurant and Hotel Management Institute, said in a letter to Bob Mahoney in 1986. He said Mary “had a great creativity in establishing a unique identity for her restaurant.”

That identity remains a constant after 50 years and is what still draws Billy Harrison of Point Clear, Ala., and many others to Biloxi and Mary Mahoney‘s.

“This is our first stop every time we come,” he said.


Tidbits about Mary Mahoney’s Old French House

- The Old French House is one of a few places in Biloxi with a cellar and it is used as a wine cellar.

- Roots from the huge oak tree, known as “The Patriarch,” can be seen in the cellar.

- The original section of Old French House is circa 1737.

- The original name in 1964 was Old French House Restaurant and Old Slave Quarters Lounge

- The restaurant is never open on Sundays.

- The Rev. Herbert Mullin, pastor of St. Michael Catholic Church, encouraged Mary Mahoney to read the “New York Times” to learn about life outside Biloxi and she read the society section regularly.

- The family scrapbooks are filled with clippings of hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles about Mary Mahoney‘s.

- The sunroom at the restaurant was added after Hurricane Camille.

- Bob Mahoney Sr. from Williamsport, Pa., was stationed at Keesler Field when he met Mary at a dance. More than 300 people attended their wedding in 1945.

- Bobby Mahoney said his mother “shoved me into” the family business, sending him to a Dale Carnegie course to learn people skills.

- Mary Mahoney’s courtyard was featured in Hancock Bank’s 1998 calendar.

- Mary Mahoney’s St. Patrick dish, made with shrimp and lump crabmeat, was named one of the 10 most memorable meals of 2011 by Forbes online.

- Mary Mahoney’s reopened two months after taking on 8-feet of water during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, thanks to the efforts of operations manager Tony Cvitanovich, who lost his home in the storm.


Information from: The Sun Herald, https://www.sunherald.com

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