Au Revoir Paris
By June Naylor
Photos by Jeremy Enlow
Decades of running an iconic diner was never a piece of cake, but it did involve a lot of good pie — and people.
After a 55-year break, Mike Smith can finally get back to bowling in his post-Paris Coffee Shop future.
As the iconic Fort Worth diner’s sale to a group led by Fort Worth chef Lou Lambert (the same partnership bringing Roy Pope Grocery back to life) moves forward, he muses over how he got here and what comes next.
“I’d gone pro in bowling after college but had just quit so I could work on my master’s degree,” Smith says, recalling his days at then-North Texas State University in Denton. “But Dad got sick, and I had to take over the business.”
Gregory Smith — who changed his last name from Asikis after emigrating from Greece in 1913 — landed in Fort Worth after a brief stop in New Orleans. Taking over Paris Coffee Shop in 1927 from its founders, the elder Smith built a following but was forced into retirement by Parkinson’s disease. Son Mike dropped his studies in administration management to step in, only to find himself struggling in his father’s shadow.
“I didn’t know what the hell I was doing when I got here. And I heard from everyone how good my dad was at this job,” he says with a laugh, remembering washing dishes himself because he couldn’t pay wages to match those at General Dynamics, the company in town with lots of jobs at the time. He soon built a reputation based on comfort food — “I had good teachers,” Smith says — and welcomed a breakfast-lunch clientele that included locals from all walks of life and more than a few celebrities, as indicated by all the signed photos hanging in the restaurant.
One Smith will take with him is that of the late John Denver, a classmate of his at Arlington Heights High School and a former golf partner. He recalls how often the renowned late novelist-sportswriter Dan Jenkins dined at Paris — “he loved my enchiladas” — and how comedian Ruth Buzzi still likes to come in for a meal.
But Smith says he won’t miss waking up at 3 a.m. to make biscuits and some 25 to 35 pies each day. At 77, it’s not easy to fix broken kitchen machines on the fly or find someone to fill in for a cook who has called in sick. So what will he miss?
“The people,” he answers immediately. “They’re what’s kept me going all this time.”
One customer, for instance, comes in every day for breakfast, lunch and to hear one of Smith’s legendary jokes. Many share his passion for egg custard pie, the one Smith calls his favorite. And then there are the 26 employees — his extended family.
In fact, he turned down other opportunities to sell the place because walking away from all of it felt wrong. In the Lambert team, he found the right assurances: “I needed to know my employees would be taken care of, and the legacy, too.”