Cleburne Cafeteria History
Nick Mickelis endured unbelievable hardship and starvation during World War II. Invading forces had occupied Greece, and at a very young age Nick joined the Greek Navy and fought with the allies to liberate Greece. In 1948, after the war, Nick Mickelis immigrated from Patmos, Greece to America. Seeing the Statue of Liberty and passing through Ellis Island were his first recollections of his new home.
Nick arrived by train with only $2.50 in his pocket, a piece of paper pinned to his jacket with the word "Houston" written on it (Nick could not speak English) and a dream to make a better life in this great country. He immediately began working in his brother's restaurant as a dishwasher and clean-up man and soon learned to cook. Within two years, he had put aside enough money between working in the restaurant and painting houses to buy a barbecue restaurant.
Nick's mother had asked her son to send photographs of himself when he came to America. Nick went to a photography studio for the pictures and met his wife to be, Pat, who was a photographer. Pat became fascinated with Nick and his artwork and would on occasion come to the barbecue restaurant for coffee and watch Nick paint murals on the walls. Nick could not afford canvas at the time and would paint on the walls in between serving customers. Nick and Pat were married in the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral here in Houston. Nick and Pat bought Cleburne Cafeteria® established in 1941 and located on Cleburne Street at Fannin in 1952 from Anabelle Collins and Martha Kavanaugh. They were thinking of turning it into a barbecue restaurant.
The faithful Cleburne clientele would not hear of it. Nick had never eaten at a cafeteria and had no choice and Pat worked side-by-side learning the ropes of the cafeteria business and making it one of Houston's best and most quality operated cafeterias. Many of the cooks that started with Nick and Pat are still with the family today.
Nick and Pat raised their two children, George and Angela, upstairs above the cafeteria which was a large twelve room house, supported by two large trees located in the dining room. Back in the 30's it was known as Napoleon's. The house had all types of trapdoors, unusual arches, secret hideaways, and old blackboards that were used for posting racing results. No one knows whatever happened to Napoleon, the man who ran the old speakeasy. But it is known that a tremendous amount of exciting old Houston memories are locked within its walls.
Cleburne was located on the edge of Riverside, a beautiful residential area. Most of Nick and Pat's regular customers moved out to the suburbs. Crime was becoming a problem, and the Mickelis family decided it was time to relocate. The move from Cleburne Street was a painful one but when it came in 1969, Pow! "Nick called me on the phone and said, 'I just bought a new cafeteria on Bissonnet'" Pat says. He completed the transaction in two hours.
It wasn't exactly the hottest spot in town. When they were ready to open, Pat wrote 350 letters to old customers. That was it! No ads, No billboards. "All 350 of them showed up," she says proudly. "The place was packed."
It is estimated that 70% of Cleburne customers are regulars. Many appear daily for both lunch and dinner. Their son George graduated from the Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Houston and has been active in the restaurant business ever since he could walk. Angela is a psychologist in California. Nick passed away at the age of 68 on September 28, 1989 following complications from open heart surgery. On August 9, 1990 the cafeteria was completely destroyed by fire. Miraculously, most of Nick's paintings were saved and completely restored to their original beauty. The cafeteria was completely rebuilt, in loving memory of Nick and reopened for business on December 2nd of that same year.
George married in 1993, and had four beautiful children. His daughter Athena was born in 1996, his son Nickolas was born in 1998, his son Anthony was born in 1999, and his son Matthew was born in 2002. George is hopeful Athena, Nickolas, Anthony, and Matthew will carry on the family's cafeteria tradition.
In April 2016, the cafeteria was once again destroyed by a devastating fire and, unfortunately, this time many of Nick's paintings were completely destroyed. Only a handful were rescued and restored and will be displayed in the new Cleburne. Also, through the sophisticated use of giclee technology, some of the paintings were re-created from photographs and are now displayed on canvas which look almost like the originals. The cafeteria was rebuilt in the memory of Nick and his beloved wife, Patricia.
Nick never gave up the dream of being an artist. The walls of the Cleburne are covered by his work (now on canvas). Most of Nick's art comes from memories of Greece. Although he was a successful restaurateur, his paintings testify he still remained an artist at heart.
Today, Cleburne Cafeteria® is run very much the way it was back in 1941. The Mickelis family believes in a homey, comfortable environment and simple homemade food. We hope you enjoy your meal.
The Cleburne Collection is a series of stories aimed to give patrons some insight into the birth of Nick Mickelis’ paintings. They can be seen gracing the walls of Cleburne Cafeteria today. The majority of his paintings highlight images and people who inspired him from the island of Patmos, Greece.