Stuck in Biloxi, Mary Mahoney’s Restaurant

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1 p.m. Feb. 6

Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport—-I’ve got time to burn.

I was supposed to leave two hours ago and I don’t know if I’ll make it home because of snow at O’Hare. How can I complain after the lingering Katrina devastation I saw along the Gulf Coast and yesterday’s tornados that ripped through Arkansas and Tennessee?

Time to burn. It’s now 1:07 p.m.

Burning calories is a big deal (no pun intended) down here because of the proposed legislation that would prohibit restaurants from serving obese customers. State Rep. John Read co-sponsored the bill and maintained no harm, no fried fowl. “I was trying to shed a little light on the number one problem in Mississippi,” he said.

But last night I had dinner at Mary Mahoney’s Old French House Restaurant, Magnolia and Water Streets in Biloxi, where owner Mary Mahoney spent her lifetime trying to educate outsiders on the intellectual and spiritual depth of people from Mississippi……

…… “I tell people my mother had a doctorate in social endeavors,” said her colorful son Bobby Mahoney, Jr., who runs the seafood-Creole restaurant today. “How does one receive a doctorate in social endeavors? You have to be well read. For over 30 years my mother sent my Daddy to the newsstand on Tuesday to get the Sunday New York Times, My mother read that magazine section pillar to post for 30 years.”

Mahoney died in 1985 from a brain tumor. She was 61 years old.

Purdue University named a hospitality industry scholarship in her honor. Mahoney was the first woman president of the Biloxi Chamber of Commerce. Mary Mahoney’s Old French House is featured in John Grisham’s novels “The Runaway Jury” and “The Partner.” Elvis Presley liked the home cooked food at Mary Mahoney’s.

For a Yankee, I consider myself something of an expert on gumbo. Mary Mahoney’s has the smoothest seafood gumbo I have tasted. It is easy on the rice and went well as the set-up for my stuffed snapper (lightly seasoned filet of snapper, stuffed with shrimp and crabmeat and then baked—served with pasta and crawfish etoufee). Actor Denzel Washington always orders the gumbo when he’s at Mary Mahoney’s.

Mary Mahoney’s parents were born in Yugoslavia and she was born in Biloxi. She married an Irishman from Biloxi. When they met he was the night auditor at the Tivoli Hotel not far from the current Old French House restaurant. “A guy was running hookers out of the hotel lounge and the owner kicked him out,” Mahoney recalled. “My mother was rather attractive and the owner asked my mother if she would be interested in running the lounge. She did that for about eight years.

” She spun LP records in that lounge. If you loved music, you gravitated to Mary Mahoney’s Bamboo Lounge. She spun male vocalists, female vocalists, Broadway shows, operas and instrumentals. She would give artists beer to paint and musicians beer to play. She’d ride by this place every day. Steve Wynn said vision is seeing something that’s not there. Mother saw a vision in this place.”

The restaurant is set in one of the oldest houses in America (built in 1737) and the oldest home in Biloxi. French colonist Louis Fraiser built the house with high ceilings that recall the Vieux Carre apartments of New Orleans. Fraiser used hand-made brick with wooden pegged columns of cypress. Slate for the roof arrived as a ballast in the holds of French sailing ships. It’s like having a fine dinner at Lafite’s pirate bar on the fringe of the French Quarter. The Old French House remained a residence until 1962 when it was acquired by Mary, her husband Bob and her brother Andrew Cvitanovich. The restaurant opened in May, 1964.

Katrina devastated the restaurant with eight feet of water. Mary Mahoney’s reopened on Nov. 3, 2005, only 65 days after the storm hit the Gulf shores. The restaurant is protected by a 2,000 year old oak tree locals call “The Patriarch.” There’s at least 2,000 warm stories at Mary Mahoney’s.

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