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Dallas History

The Man With the 8-Foot Pepper Mill

Ever the showman, Nick DeGeorge Sr. was Dallas’ first celebrity restaurateur.
DeGeorge and the world's largest pepper mill
Nick DeGeorge Jr.

Standing in the parking lot that is 2016 Commerce Street on a hot August morning, nothing suggests this was once the site of arguably the city’s most popular post-WWII restaurant. Just two blocks east of the renovated Statler hotel, the parking lot was occupied by a building that housed the Goodyear Tire Company (1913), Dixie Mold & Rubber Vulcanizers (1920), and Smoot’s Supplies, a Depression-era business owned by Sheriff “Smoot” Schmid. By the mid-1940s it was known as the Dallas Bible Institute, an interdenominational seminary founded by Dr. Robert J. Wells.

Today its neighbors are the Guns and Roses Boutique, the Dallas Municipal Court building, and a concrete parking garage. But 75 years ago, the spot was central to everything. The trolley, with its overhead electric lines, looped through downtown and the popular Theater District, then out to the suburbs called University Park, East Dallas, and Oak Cliff. This history is gone, but if you squint really hard, you can almost see it.

It is 1947. The second World War has ended, and GIs return to a Dallas that is expanding outward, building new neighborhoods beyond the ends of the trolley tracks that feed downtown. Love Field, with at least dozens of flights daily, brings Hollywood legends to town to perform, play, shop. It is midcentury, and the keyword is “modern.” No longer constrained by wartime rationing, housewives throw off their homemade, post-Depression clothing, draping themselves in the silk, taffeta, and chiffon dresses now available “ready made” at Neiman’s, Sanger Harris, or Titche’s. Friends congregate over dinner at trendy restaurants, followed by dancing at clubs. And the place to eat in 1947? The Town and Country, at 2016 Commerce Street.

Restaurant Illustration Postcard

The restaurant’s name is announced in large neon letters on a marquee; DeSotos and Packards line up at the valet. Two liveried attendants run to open double doors, and in the lobby the maître d’, Domenic, awaits guests. The main dining room holds hundreds of seated people, with servers weaving between tables with terpsichorean skill. Charles Stevens Dilbeck’s design is an effort to visually divide the large room; the Country side, with wallpaper featuring beach cabana-style doors and shutters partially covering a palm tree pattern, versus the Town side, where sophisticated orchid-covered walls frame a view of the kitchen through an etched-glass window. Even the ceiling is divided by contrasting, complementary patterns.

White linen tablecloths and napkins stenciled with the carriage logo and restaurant name are on the tables. Few of the ashtrays are empty, and a smoky haze hangs in the air. A waiter arrives to take a predinner drink order; Champagne cocktails, wine, or beer are the only options, since selling liquor by the drink is illegal in Texas. Flasks, however, are welcome, and the restaurant charges 35 cents for a bottle of seltzer.

The beef cart wheels by, a custom-made stainless steel dome containing roasts of prime rib from which guests can select their cuts. The attending chef is certainly a professional, his uniform a crisp white jacket, long apron, and tall toque. The menu is varied Americana (as translated from other cuisines), offering chicken à la king, canapés Romanoff, and the Tampa Platter of mixed seafood and coleslaw. A double sirloin steak (for two) with soup, Caesar salad, dessert, and drink costs $8, the second-most expensive item on the menu (a bottle of Champagne was up to $12).

Some guests may notice the medium-size, bespectacled man patrolling the dining room. He wears a vibrantly colored, immaculately tailored suit. In his hands he holds a cigar, perhaps a tool for conversation, perhaps a technique to sell the Cuban cigars available from the cigarette girl who also traverses the room. He is at ease as he shakes guests’ hands. His regulars and many of the famous give him hugs. This man is Nick DeGeorge Sr., the owner, the ringmaster, the star of the show.

That was the Town and Country. According to Nick DeGeorge Jr., his father was a hardworking restaurateur who was ahead of his time. Nick Sr. was undoubtedly a success several times over. He made a difficult industry look easy to outsiders, yet he paid a personal toll for his storied career. An only child, Nick Jr. shared his memories of growing up in the restaurant where he began working as a young boy.

Born to Sicilian immigrants in the 1890s with the name DeGeorgio, Nick Sr.’s family settled in Dallas and opened a small store downtown. His father died when he was young, and his mother remarried and moved to Corsicana with her new husband. Nick stayed in Dallas with his brother and sister and worked at The Adolphus as an elevator boy. At some point he moved to Chicago, learning the restaurant trade while working at a French restaurant.

“Guests used a hot branding iron on their selections of raw meat, the mark indicating to the kitchen the internal temperature they desired.”

Upon returning to Dallas, Nick Sr. made several attempts at small businesses, a deli on Fitzhugh and a cafe downtown, before finding his first success. Partnering with Sam Ventura, he opened the Italian Village in an old house at Hall and Oak Lawn in 1930. Since it was still Prohibition, the place featured family-friendly dining, which suited its neighborhood location on the edge of Turtle Creek and Highland Park. Approximately one year after opening, Nick Sr. split from his second wife, Fay, and once the divorce was finalized he quickly married his business partner’s younger sister, Lucille.

In 1939, the partners expanded downtown, opening DeGeorge’s at 1501 Commerce Street. The food service started at an early 7 am for the business crowd. Serving “Fine Food” such as steaks from Kansas City, it also featured more exotic ethnic dishes: Chinese, Italian, and Mexican. A letter from Mr. DeGeorge inside the menu made the claim: “Our coffee is a special DeGeorge blend. We serve only milk-fed chickens and fresh yard eggs.” And: “Our sea foods [sic] are received fresh daily.”

World War II created an immigrant backlash. In 1940, Nick and Sam advertised a name change of the Italian Village to The Village and also disavowed their Italian heritage publicly in the local papers. But what dissolved the men’s partnership was the divorce of Nick Sr. from Lucille in late 1940. It was an unpleasant episode that played out in the news. Each partner ended up with one restaurant. Sam kept The Village, while Nick Sr.’s namesake restaurant, DeGeorge’s, became his alone. Nick Jr., who was adopted in early 1940 at the age of 3, was raised by Nick Sr. after the divorce.

The Town and Country opened in 1947. Frequent remodels and expansions kept it so popular that for six years a second Town and Country restaurant operated inside Fair Park’s Women’s Building during the State Fair of Texas. It featured elegant luncheon fashion shows for ladies during the day and a full-service dining option for fairgoers at night. Nick Sr. expanded the original restaurant on Commerce into the building next door in 1949, adding a 200-seat Garden Room with an outside patio. A scarlet-colored, two-story Sirloin Room with balcony seating above the dining room was added in 1951. It featured a traveling meat cart with an enclosed brazier. Guests used a hot branding iron on their selections of raw meat, the mark indicating to the kitchen the internal temperature they desired: R(are), M(edium), or W(ell done).

Nick Sr. was a marketing wunderkind, and he claimed many firsts for Dallas. Some of them were true; some claims are difficult to dispute 75 years later. He claimed to have brought prime rib to Dallas (unconfirmed), and his customized beef carts were a one-of-a-kind popular draw for diners. Another shtick he used was the World’s Largest Pepper Mill. At 8 feet tall, it sat on a stand that was impressively wheeled up to the table for the guest’s use. In 1955, Nick Sr. imported a $1,250 espresso machine capable of producing six espressos in just 30 seconds, “introducing” cafe espresso to Texas. Certainly, no other restaurant in Dallas had such a collection of superfluous itemry. Above all, though, the Town and Country brought an entertainment vibe to dining out in Dallas unlike any restaurant ever had.

A natural showman, Nick Sr. wore brightly hued bespoke suits by Frank Ortiz, the same Galveston tailor who costumed Liberace. “Green suits, red suits—nobody was wearing this,” says Nick Jr. His father drove a new Cadillac around town with “NICK DEGEORGE” printed in gold along the back fins. Nick Jr. says, “Back in the late ’50s, when KLIF was downtown on Elm at Central, Ron Chapman would sit up there [in the broadcast window] and say, ‘Nick DeGeorge just drove by.’ He had a lot of flair.” Nick Sr. traveled to Las Vegas and California to visit good friends in the entertainment industry—Joe E. Lewis, Nick Lucas, Spike Jones—and to find food trends to bring to Dallas. These visits were written up and shared with Dallas diners in Tony Zoppi’s entertainment column in the Dallas Morning News (he was also a regular at the restaurant).

Town & Country InteriorGreat men sometimes have great weaknesses. Nick Sr. was not a drinker, nor a gambler, but when it came to women, he was enthusiastic. During his divorce from his fourth wife, Pauline DeGeorge, he accused her of beating him with a shoe for running around and swore to the press he was never getting married again. Three weeks after the divorce was final, he married Doris Dean Nicholson, a young lady from Corsicana. Family lore had him at 11 marriages; records suggest that was an exaggeration (there were, however, at least seven). “He loved women,” Nick Jr. says. “They brought every movie star that came to town to Town and Country, everyone in the musicals. He dated quite a few of them.” With his appearance decidedly nonleading man, one can suppose his allure with women came from the same source as his appeal to guests. He had impeccable style and loved to have fun.

Many other restaurants were opened and run by Nick Sr., though none compared to the Town and Country. The Big Top was a short-lived partnership with Sam Ventura, a circus-themed restaurant in Preston Center that included elephants at the grand opening and their sons, Sammy and Nick Jr., touted as the “youngest restaurant owners in Dallas.” In 1960, Nick Sr. purchased the former Oak Room on Oak Lawn, opening Gino’s Black Saddle, a steakhouse he sold a year later. DeGeorge’s Barbecue operated for many years in Casa Linda Shopping Center during the 1960s. His largest project, the Town and Country Shopping Center, at McKinney and Lemmon, included the Town and Country Bakery, which featured baked goods served at the original restaurant.

There were restaurants and businesses that were conceived by Nick Sr. but never built—like the Dilbeck-designed twin service stations connected by a circular covered colonnade and sunken gardens, on land owned by his sister, Frances, and her husband, Preston Center developer Sam Lobello. There was a planned restaurant on Live Oak “patterned after a West Coast pancake house”; an idea of a drive-in; and a nightclub adjacent to Walnut Hill Country Club, at Northwest Highway and Lemmon. A hungry Dallas was eager for more DeGeorge, and even if the idea was never fully baked, it always sounded delicious.

The money Nick Sr. made during the restaurant’s heyday paid for an exciting lifestyle. Any earnings left over were reinvested in the restaurant over the years, for expansions, redecorating, and reconcepting. In the late 1950s the Garden Room became Salle Provençale, with French food, followed a couple of years later by the Chinese Room, with servers in “authentic” Chinese costumes. Club Marquis was added in a room adjacent to the Sirloin Room for a late-night music and entertainment venue. None of the changes brought sales to their former glory, and at 20 years, the restaurant had seen its golden time.

“The Town and Country would not be the only downtown business to suffer an early sunset in the shadows of the Statler’s success.”

Critically ill health forced Nick Sr. to retire in 1965. He’d suffered a heart attack in 1963 that hospitalized him for three months. Business was slow downtown, and the residents of Dallas were finding places closer to home to enjoy. The area suffered rising crime in the early 1960s, with break-ins and armed robberies giving it a bad reputation. Newer places, such as the Empire Room at Hilton’s Statler hotel, with its combination of dining and entertainment, provided an exciting new environment for Dallas to intersect with Hollywood. The Town and Country would not be the only downtown business to suffer an early sunset in the shadows of the Statler’s success.

Nick Jr. began working for Nick Sr. as a bread boy at age 11, a job he hated, and later as a valet, a job he loved. His youth was not untroubled. He was left on his own most nights when Nick Sr. was between wives. Their relationship was confusing, fractured. By his teenage years, they had lived in many houses and apartments in Dallas. Once, when Nick Jr. was caught skipping class from North Dallas High, his father moved him into a boarding house by himself and then later sent him to a military academy in Bryan, Texas. Following a stint in the Army, Nick Jr. returned to working with his father in 1962 and later developed his own successful restaurant and club career in Dallas. But it was never something he really loved the way his father did.

By 1966, the restaurant had been consolidated into one of its two buildings at 2020 Commerce. Nick Jr. helped run the restaurant for several years but admits, “I was never into it. Things were slowing down. He retired and I sold it.” The purchaser, Vic Ballas, owned the Italian restaurant Victor’s, farther down Commerce, as well as Victor’s Purple Orchid in the original Town and Country location at 2016 Commerce. The Town and Country still served an active ladies luncheon crowd but never regained the status it once enjoyed. By the end of 1973, it was no more. Married to Mima (Mary Virginia) Lund DeGeorge since the mid-1950s, Nick Sr. led an uneventful postretirement life in East Dallas, until his death in 1973.

Stand in the parking lot that is 2016 Commerce Street and look east. Amid numerous road construction signs, you notice the new East Quarter designations painted on the sides of buildings, a rebirth of a corner of downtown inspired by talk of tearing down an interstate. The neighborhood is anchored by the triangular Magnolia Oil Building, once home to KLIF. In the tradition of modern Dallas renewal, it will become a restaurant. And one might suppose that Nick DeGeorge Sr., had he lived forever, would approve.

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