While a column on the history of Paris Coffee Shop may be appropriate in light of Mike Smith’s recent passing, this story is about the man and the community he built around a place of breakfast. lunch and “simple” lunch.
Paris Coffee Shop is linked to the Greek ancestry of the Smith family and their work in food and restaurants. Shortly after arriving in the United States, Mike’s father, Gregory K. Smith (born Grigorios K. Acikis), got a job at a restaurant. Around 1926, this experience led to a position at the downtown Bon-Ton Café, owned by Victor G. “Vic” Paris, another Greek immigrant. Mr. Paris founded Paris Coffee Shop soon after and sold it to Gregory Smith in 1930. Mike Smith took over management in the 1960s when his father’s health failed.
No one ever accused Paris of serving gourmet food, but this was comfort food at its finest. Under Mike, who relied on a hardworking and amazing staff, Paris turned out good basic meals affordable enough to eat every day. Lots of people did just that, and it was easy to hear the claims that breakfasts and chicken fried steak would hold up in any competition. No matter who you are, everyone was welcome in Paris.
My own “Parisian” story revolves around a breakfast group that has been meeting there for over 30 years. It’s informal – just whichever of the six or seven of us shows up on the designated morning. The ritual got us through the good times and the bad. Several of us had to do some schedule gymnastics to be sure of being in Paris on the agreed day and time. It was so important to us.
Ours was not the only group that met regularly in Paris. Every meal, every day had its own regulars. A group of men affiliated with St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church often crowded around one of the large round tables. They were an important part of Mike’s connection to the Greek community, and he has spoken of becoming a regular in the band once he retires. I guess one of them gave him the sign “Parking for Greeks only – all others will be towed away” posted behind the cash register.
Mike made running the restaurant look easy, though getting the aging building and machinery to cooperate sometimes caused sounds of muffled exasperation. One morning he was out front greeting customers after going up to the roof to check the air conditioning.
At one point during our regular breakfasts, Mike would go around greeting people as if he knew them all, whether he knew them or not. He gave hugs, told a story, and rubbed his back from time to time using what had to be the strongest fingers in the world. I give credit for making pie dough to building that finger strength!
One year Mike outfitted our group with Paris Coffee Shop t-shirts, a table, chairs, coffee mugs and a large Watkins pepper container for our float in the Ryan Place 4th of July Parade. It was good publicity for him and great fun for us. These memories and experiences are what make Paris so special to me. That Paris endures is a testament to both Mike and the new owners. He will be missed by many.
Carol Roark is an archivist, historian and author with a special interest in architectural and photographic history who has written several books on the history of Fort Worth.