At your service: Three Mary Mahoney’s career waiters have interesting tales to tell

“This is like the Masters jacket.”

Robert Norwood touched the lapels of his shamrock-green jacket as he, Marshall Johnson and Fred Wagner sat in what is known as Lucien’s Room, a private dining room at Mary Mahoney’s Old French House restaurant in the almost-300-year-old building in Biloxi.

It was just before the lunchtime crowd would come through the bar and into the dining area of the 52-year-old restaurant. Lucien’s Room is named for a former waiter, as is the dining room next door, Reuben’s Room.

Still on the team

Norwood, known as Wood at work (“There were so many Roberts here, I just shortened it to Wood,” he said), and Johnson have been good friends for years.

Wagner, who works six nights a week, had left an intriguing project at home to briefly come in; he was making a private batch of pecan liqueur with pecans, orange peel, cloves, vodka and sugar.

Johnson is called in for special occasions and Norwood also has reduced his hours, but they’re still on the Mahoney’s team.

“I used to be a thoroughbred waiter,” Wagner said with his signature dry wit. “Now, I’m a quarterhorse.”

Green jackets

The green jacket with shiny brass buttons has been identified with the waitstaff of Mahoney’s since it opened in 1964. It’s also been a wardrobe staple for these three men for decades.

Marshall has worked at Mahoney’s for 46 years, Norwood for 40 years and Wagner, practically a youngster by comparison, for 27 years.

For them, being a waiter at this restaurant that celebrates tradition is not just a job, it’s a profession, combining psychology, mediation, diplomacy and attention to detail. A sense of humor helps, too, and these three have been blessed with it.

Norwood’s start

Norwood began working at the restaurant in the Newberry’s store in Edgewater Mall when it opened in 1964. Marshall, whose grandfather, Marshall Scott, was the first chef at Mary’s Mahoney’s, helped Norwood get on at the restaurant. Marshall worked at the Tally House before Mahoney’s.

Wagner is a native of the Czech Republic and goes back home for a month-long visit each year. He came to the Coast by way of Chicago.

“We came down here to help my wife take care of her mother,” he said.

Many celebrities

Marshall is especially fond of his memories of Archie Manning and his family. “They would bring their boys in here and I loved waiting on them,” he said, holding a framed photo of the family taken decades earlier.

Diana Ross, Denzel Washington, Barbara Eden, Leif Eriksen and Charles Bronson are some of the celebrities who have entered the restaurant during Johnson’s years. In fact, in the doorway of each dining room, there is a brass plaque listing names of luminaries who have enjoyed a meal in that room.

Johnson recalled a visit by ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov when he performed on the Coast in 1979.

“He had a little phobia about Russian spies,” Johnson said.

Baryshnikov was a great fan of beer, he said, and “every time he went in the restroom, I had to go with him and make sure nobody was in there and guard the door.”

Baryshnikov’s concern was not without merit. He had defected from the Soviet Union to Canada only five years earlier, seeking asylum in Toronto, and announced he would not return. He later became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

Miss Teen USA

The Miss Teen USA pageant was held annually on the Coast in the early 1990s, and Mary Mahoney’s was a popular place for organizers and celebrities involved in the competition.

“There was one thing they loved more than anything else, and that’s fried potato skins,” Johnson said. “We had never heard of them.”

Determined to please the customer, though, the staff got to work unstuffing potatoes and sprinkling a little cheese on top. They presented their fried offering. Close, but not quite. Once the pageant folks described their favorite snack, though, the kitchen was able to accomodate them.

Taking care of customers

Sometimes customers arrived in the mulligrubs with seemingly no cure.

“Miss Mary could put out a fire without water,” Norwood said. He recalled a time about nine people arrived “really upset.” Finally Mary Mahoney encouraged them to take a seat, have a drink and just relax.

“Peace, be still,” he said.

His compatriots still get a kick out of Fred Wagner’s response to one slightly disgruntled customer.

“True story,” Marshall said. One day, one of Wagner’s customers ordered oyster soup. His soup was brought to the table; soon the customer wanted to see Wagner, who returned to the table.

“Everything’s fine, but there’s just one oyster in my soup,” the customer said.

“So Fred said, ‘Shh! Chef’s been looking for that oyster,’” Marshall said. “Everybody was laughing.”

Marshall has advice for young waiters.

“Put the phone down,” he said slowly, and Norwood and Wagner agreed.

“I tell young men when they start here, they need to be kind to their table and give good service,” Norwood said. “Clean up and show them you’re glad they’re here. Check back with them. People like that kind of attention.”