In Biloxi, Mississippi are a dynamic brother and sister duo who have owned and operated a restaurant in one of the oldest homes in America through two of the worst hurricanes to hit the Gulf Coast of the United States.
The fact that they are survivors is a small aspect of the story. Eileen and Bob Mahoney and the rest of their extended family, starting with their deceased mother and continuing down to nieces and nephews are a dying breed of restaurateurs and historians.
On a recent trip to Biloxi I, fortunately, not only dined but spent some time talking with both Eileen and Bob.
Each one has a unique personality. Eileen is gracious, welcoming and attractive, displaying a close resemblance to her well-known mother, Mary Mahoney who started the restaurant. Bob is charming, humorous in a sly way and definitely the keeper of the family’s and restaurant’s history.
Bob Mahoney, Jr. was in the forefront of the move to legalize waterfront gambling in Mississippi. “Mother lived to gamble and she spent many nights and quite a lot of money at the (illegal) casino upstairs at one of the hotels on the beach,’’ Bob recalled. He says that his mother would have been in the midst of the casino action if she lived today.
Bob now serves as the President of the Old French House and has taken over his mother’s former role chief greeter of guests and friends who come to dine. Over the years he has developed a repertoire he uses to put guests at ease. According to him, “my standard church jokes.” He also seems to be the go-to-person for making celebrities comfortable in the restaurant.
And while the restaurant, located in a rambling house and out buildings which dates to about 1737, has been a favorite for Biloxians since 1964, it seems it has also welcomed an extraordinary amount of world-renown diners.
The Mahoney’s have posted small brass plagues near the doorways to each of the restaurant’s room informing all who enter those who have dined in the room before.
There are movie stars, sports figures, polities, and even presidents, including Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and the Reagan’s. An autographed portrait of Mary Mahoney and President Reagan is one of the restaurant’s prized possessions.
In fact, Mary Mahoney catered a party for then President Ronald Reagan on the White House lawn.
Mary Mahoney’s Old French House served the Congressional Delegation in Washington, D.C. for six consecutive years at the Rayburn Building and also President Reagan on June 21, 1984, at the request of the National Fisheries Institute.
Probably one of the most likely ways the restaurant is known countrywide (and in some cases world-wide) is due to well-known American author John Grisham. The restaurant is mentioned in his books, including Runaway Jury and The Partner.
“John dines here often,’’ recalled Bob Mahoney as we sat a dinner one evening this past October.
“And every Christmas I send him a large container of our seafood gumbo,’’ said Bob with a smile. “He (Grisham) just sent me a copy of his new book Sycamore Row,’’ continued Bob, showing us the book which at the time of our dinner hadn’t been released. The Old French House was built during the French occupation of the coast and was originally opened in 1964 as the Old French House Restaurant.
It is so magnificently French with high ceilings characteristic of the still surviving French Quarter apartments in New Orleans.
It was constructed of hand-made brick with wooden-pegged columns of hand-hewn cypress and roofed with slate brought over from France.
On the night of my visit we dined in what was originally servant’s quarters. The first room of these quarters was used as a kitchen, because of its large fireplace. Our dinner and talk was in this first room in front of the still standing fireplace.
It was here Bob Mahoney, Jr., son of Mary and Bob Mahoney, recanted tales, jokes and history surrounded by several writers and photographers from well-respected publications across America.
The day prior I toured the restaurant with Eileen Mahoney as she pointed out the restaurants significant historical assets. Eileen works at the restaurant as a hostess and bartender. “I help out wherever I can,” she said.
In the courtyard, which was designed by the Mahoney family, to favor New Orleans sits a huge live oak tree, known as The Patriarch. Four tree surgeons were asked to determine the age of it. “All four thought the tree to be over 2,000 years old,’’ said Eileen. The tree is registered with the Live Oak Society and survived both devasting hurricanes, Camille in 1969 and Katrina in 2005.
Speaking of trees, the City of Biloxi planted a tree in Mary Mahoney’s honor on Mary Mahoney Day, September 22, 1985 and named a city park in her honor in 2004. The tree and its commemorating plaque are across the mall from the front porch of the Old French House.
Eileen also showed me the cellar of the Old French House. “”Having a cellar was a rarity on the Coast,’’ said Eileen, “And this brick walled cellar is so bone dry that previous owners have used it to store books and furniture.”
It is now used as wine cellar and along the floor the roots from The Patriarch can be seen.
When Hurricane Katrina struck on August 29, 2005, the Mahoney’s didn’t store anything below ground, they moved everything as high as they could. The 28-plus foot storm surge washed through the entire complex damaging the dining rooms and historical artifacts. The Irish Pub and Sidewalk Café were completely destroyed.
After Katrina, the most costly and destructive hurricane in U.S. history, the Mahoney’s were able to rebuild and reopen within 9 weeks even though several family members suffered the total loss of their own personal homes.
Besides Bob, Jr, and Eileen, Mary Mahoney’s legacy is carried on by a third generation through her grandchildren, Stacy, Caty, Trae, Josh and Nicole. Andrew Citanovich (Mary Mahoney’s brother) and his children, Tony, Andrea and Joanna also are involved in the restaurant.
Mary Mahoney’s is famous not only for its history and style but most importantly for its excellent food. The seafood is spectacular, but all the menu items were delicious.
Especially well-known are the Stuffed Snapper and Half Lobster Georgo (a trademarked recipe). The Shrimp and Lump Crabmeat St. Patrick was named one of the 10 most memorable meals of 2011 by Forbes Online.
The restaurant, under Chef Georgo Trojanavich, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this upcoming year
The service and ambiance can’t be beat, so it is no wonder both locals and visitors from far and wide find their way to its door. If you don’t believe me, just check with John Grisham!
Mary Mahoney’s Old French House Restaurant
Hwy. 90 and Rue Magnolia, Biloxi, Mississippi
228-374-0163 _ marymahoneys.com