Cafe­te­ria comes back from ashes

De­stroyed by fire last year, the haven for com­fort food is ready to dish it up

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Greg Mor­ago

Ge­orge Mick­e­lis is lousy at keep­ing a se­cret. So are his cus­tomers.

“I in­vited 100 peo­ple, and 500 showed up,” he said.

They filled the park­ing lot, some hav­ing to park blocks away. They de­scended on steam ta­bles loaded with roast beef, baked chicken, fried had­dock, chicken fried steak, lima beans, baked squash, broc­coli casse­role and pie. And they sa­vored the mo­ment, one they’d been an­tic­i­pat­ing for more than a year: Cle­burne Cafe­te­ria is back.

Hous­ton’s beloved, old-school, made-from­scratch, com­fort food haven — closed since a fire de­stroyed it on April 26, 2016 — has re­opened at 3606 Bis­son­net. On Tues­day, Mick­e­lis in­vited some of his best cus­tomers and friends for a free meal — an “ex­per­i­men­tal run” to test the kitchen and the staff. He was ex­pect­ing a crowd, but Mick­e­lis po­litely called what he got “bi­b­li­cal” in in­ten­sity.

“This is all lit­er­ally word of mouth,” he said.

And that trav­els fast, it seems, when it comes to Cle­burne Cafe­te­ria.

Buster Freed­man, a cus­tomer since the days

when the cafe­te­ria ac­tu­ally was on Cle­burne Street, came with his daugh­ter and grand­daugh­ter — three gen­er­a­tions en­joy­ing a re­turn to a fa­mil­ial din­ing rou­tine.

“I’m happy for the com­mu­nity and happy for Ge­orge,” Freed­man said. “His whole life is this res­tau­rant.”

Jer­maine John­son was there, too. Be­fore the fire, John­son ate at Cle­burne four to five times a week.

“Ev­ery­where you go, the por­tions have got­ten smaller, the ser­vice has changed and prices have gone up,” he said. “That’s never changed here.”

From Ellis Is­land to Hous­ton

Tues­day’s soft open­ing — the res­tau­rant of­fi­cially opens to the pub­lic Thurs­day — re­sumed the Cle­burne Cafe­te­ria story that Mick­e­lis’ fa­ther, Nick, be­gan writ­ing af­ter ar­riv­ing in Amer­ica through Ellis Is­land from Pat­mos, Greece, in 1948.

The Greek im­mi­grant who spoke no English ar­rived with $2.50 in his pocket and a piece of pa­per pinned to his jacket with the word “Hous­ton” writ­ten on it. He be­gan work­ing in a res­tau­rant as a dish­washer and learned to cook. Af­ter sev­eral years, he had saved enough money to buy a bar­be­cue res­tau­rant.

He even­tu­ally met the woman who would be­come his wife, Pat; they were mar­ried and in 1952 bought the Cle­burne Cafe­te­ria, es­tab­lished in 1941, at Cle­burne Street and Fan­nin.

They raised their two chil­dren, Ge­orge and An­gela, in rooms above the cafe­te­ria. In 1969 they moved the busi­ness to its cur­rent lo­ca­tion on Bis­son­net where Nick’s art­work — he was an avid pain­ter who fa­vored bu­colic scenes of his home­land — graced the walls. Nick died in 1989; today Ge­orge runs the busi­ness and Pat, at 93, re­mains a daily, vis­i­ble pres­ence in the din­ing room.

The new cafe­te­ria is a stun­ner, a 12,000-square-foot din­ing hall “on steroids,” Ge­orge Mick­e­lis said, ref­er­enc­ing the pre­vi­ous build­ing that was 7,000 square feet. The space can ac­com­mo­date 300 peo­ple — 45 more than the res­tau­rant that was de­stroyed when an ac­ci­den­tal elec­tri­cal fire swept through it in the early morn­ing hours of April 26.

Mick­e­lis had hoped to re­open months ago but there were con­struc­tion de­lays and, of course, Hur­ri­cane Har­vey to con­tend with. Today the long road to restor­ing his fam­ily’s trea­sure is over as the cafe­te­ria is be­ing re­turned to the peo­ple who love it.

“It’s a bless­ing,” Mick­e­lis said. “Peo­ple in this cafe­te­ria are like fam­ily.”

That fam­ily pressed him hard on Tues­day. Mick­e­lis could not move through the din­ing room with­out dozens of peo­ple slap­ping his back and shak­ing his hands. Greet­ing peo­ple wait­ing pa­tiently in the food line, he was cheered and ap­plauded.

“I feel like Ge­orge Bai­ley in ‘It’s a Won­der­ful Life.’ I didn’t know how much we are loved,” he said.

‘Mom, they’re open again’

He’s look­ing for­ward to the cafe­te­ria set­tling into its tra­di­tional pat­terns.

“On Sun­days af­ter church is when you see it all. The Catholics come in and then the Pres­by­te­ri­ans, then the Bap­tists. The Bap­tists are al­ways last. And in be­tween you mix in the Methodists and the Ortho­dox Chris­tians,” he said. “A judge could be sit­ting next to a UPS driver, sit­ting next to a priest. It truly is the United Na­tions. It’s a melt­ing pot of ev­ery group and ev­ery na­tion­al­ity.”

And it’s where Tongula Sted­dum brought her mother, Katie Givens, when she was go­ing through treat­ments for ovar­ian can­cer at MD An­der­son.

“She loved this place. When they burned down, she was dev­as­tated,” Sted­dum said.

Givens loved the liver and onions, fol­lowed by the fried chicken, fol­lowed by the fried fish. And al­ways the pinto beans. They were meals that sus­tained her and brought her com­fort dur­ing her strug­gle with can­cer, Sted­dum said.

“Dur­ing the last month of my mom’s life, all she wanted was Cle­burne’s.”

Givens didn’t live to see the re­open­ing. But Sted­dum was there Tues­day, think­ing of her mother as she moved through the cafe­te­ria line and took her place at a sunny win­dow ta­ble with a fresh plate of food in front of her.

“I said, ‘Mom, they’re open again,’ ” Sted­dum said. “She’d be so happy to know they’re back.”

Karen War­ren / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Cle­burne Cafe­te­ria owner Ge­orge Mick­e­lis greets long­time cus­tomer Tongula Sted­dum dur­ing the res­tau­rant’s soft open­ing Tues­day.

Karen War­ren photos / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Cle­burne Cafe­te­ria of­fi­cially opens to the pub­lic Thurs­day, but lines were al­ready long at the eatery’s soft open­ing on Tues­day.

Owner Ge­orge Mick­e­lis kisses his mother, Pat, who is a daily pres­ence in the din­ing room.

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