Of the many gifts the Greek immigrant has bestowed on American culture, the concept of the greasy spoon coffee shop and diner stand out.
Many of the diners serving New York City to this day are owned and operated by any one of the many descendants of the influx of Greek immigrants who arrived at the beginning of the last century. To the shores of Ellis Island, they brought with them the kaffenion, that place back at home where the blue-collar class gathered to talk over coffee or maybe something more spirited.
The Greek diner that evolved in the melting pot of the land of opportunity certainly left a lasting impression – something akin to a full-body tattoo — on Louis Lambert.
Not all that long ago, he was a young Texan in New York plotting the contributions he would make to culinary culture in Fort Worth as a student at The Culinary Institute of America. During periods of respite, trips to the city generally included a stop at one of these Greek diners.
“I was always fascinated by the Greek diners,” said Lambert. “That’s a phenomenon that we – or I – didn’t know about in Texas. I was always fascinated by the concept and said one day I want to do that. I just never had the opportunity.”
That’s all changing with one of the city’s most iconic dining locations soon changing hands.
Lambert is part of the group buying the historic Paris Coffee Shop on the northwest corner of Magnolia and Hemphill. He is joined in the enterprise with investors Rodger Chieffalo, Mark Harris and Chris Reale, the same group bringing the historic Roy Pope boutique grocery on the west side back from the ashes.
Not long after the consummation of that deal, the Paris Coffee Shop came on the market, said Lambert, who was alerted by Chieffalo, his longtime friend and fraternity brother at TCU.
Suddenly all visits to the diners in New York City and visions of his own converged.
“That would be perfect for what I’ve been thinking about all these years,” Lambert recalled.
The deal announced in November is expected to close in February, Chieffalo said, and includes the entire “kit and caboodle.” In addition to the business and everything inside the building, the group is acquiring the property as well as an adjoining office building.
Lambert, a Paris diner for more than 40 years, beginning with his years as a student at TCU, vowed to maintain the “soul of Paris Coffee Shop.” At the same time is the recognition of the need to revive and modernize to reflect the times and changed demographics in the bustling Near Southside neighborhood.
Paris Coffee Shop, which lived through many tough times along the Hemphill Street and Magnolia Avenue corridor, will be joining the renaissance of the Near Southside.
Many of the updates in the diner actually will more closely resemble what was the old Paris with larger booths, new seating and surfaces, and a higher ceiling and improved lighting. The group plans to extend and upgrade the counter service as well as embrace the tradition of Paris’ legendary pies with a new bake shop.
“We’re putting money into giving our respect to what it was and what it needs to be today to reflect the market and demographic of the neighborhood,” Lambert said.
Everything will be fresh and made in-house.
The menu will be expanded, yet include the blue-plate specials, but also lighter, healthier options, Lambert said.
The layout of the restaurant will remain the same, Lambert said. However, what was once a storage area in the back will be converted into a private dining area for business meetings or overflow seating.
Not all of this will happen at once. Upon closing of the sale, current owner Mike Smith will stay on for 30 days during the transition. Some tweaks will be made to the menu, but renovations won’t occur for about six months, Lambert said. That phase of the project is expected to start in July 2021 and take two to three months to complete, he said. It will also include a gutting of the kitchen.
In addition to Paris’ breakfast and lunch hours of the past 95 years, Lambert will add dinner when they reopen, as well as full bar service. (That will not include an actual bar.) Service hours will be seven days a week.
“I’ve done a lot of really interesting and cool projects over the years, but this one I feel more pressure than any I’ve ever done because of the history behind it and love of what it represents,” Lambert said.
To emphasize that, Lambert shared a recent conversation with an associate, who passed along a piece of advice on his latest undertaking: Don’t, um, screw it up.
“It’s got so much history and so many people invested in it,” Lambert said. “We have a lot of eyes on it. I put a lot of pressure on myself to deliver both an aesthetically great while nailing the food.
“And do it day after day after day.”
There is indeed a lot of history here.
Paris Coffee Shop has been in the hands of the Smith family since 1926. The diner moved from its original location, 614 W. Magnolia, in the mid-1970s when the city widened Hemphill Street, Smith said. For the past 55 years, it has been under the direction of Mike Smith, the son.
“We felt like it was a great time to step in,” said Chieffalo. “Mike certainly had an interest in selling. He wanted someone to take it and continue to run and it and not bulldoze it and turn it into a parking lot.”
Said Smith: “After 55 years, it’s time.”
We do not keep good food – we sell it was a mantra seen in ads throughout the 1930s.
Gregory K. Smith acquired the diner from Vic Paris. He ran it for 40 years.
The 26-year-old Gregory K. Smith wound his way to Fort Worth from Rikers Island, the strip of land in the East River between Queens and the Bronx in New York.
When he arrived in America in 1913 as a 13-year-old, his name wasn’t Gregory Smith, but rather Grigonos Asikis.
A Greek immigrant who ran a Greek diner.
“He changed his name to Smith so he could get a job,” Mike Smith said.
Unbeknownst to Lambert when this all started, the Paris Coffee Shop really is his dream project in every way.