George's Majestic Lounge in Fayetteville is more famous for beer and lounging than food. The contemporary George's doesn't even serve real food, only popcorn and such, and you can't win prizes in the Arkansas Times' Readers Choice restaurant contest that way.
Still, George's has a place in the history of Arkansas dining. A considerable number of people who attended the University of Arkansas in the 1950s and early '60s saw, and ate, their very first pizza at the storied Dickson Street tavern. The closest they'd come to pizza before then was hearing Dean Martin sing, "When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie ... "
George's has been described variously as the first pizza place in Fayetteville and the first pizza place in Northwest Arkansas. Either way, it was one of the first in the state, maybe no worse than second.
It may come as a surprise to young people, but pizza is not indigenous to Arkansas, not like okra or banana pudding. Once, a time within living memory, there was no pizza.
It's widely believed, by members of the Bruno family of Little Rock among others, that the first pizza in Arkansas was served up by Bruno's Little Italy. "We started selling pizza in Levy in 1947," Vince Bruno says. In 1949, Bruno's moved from that North Little Rock neighborhood to Roosevelt Road in Little Rock. It remained there many years, one of Little Rock's showpiece restaurants, at a time when there weren't many. The restaurant is now at 315 N. Bowman Road, still serving pizza and other Italian fare.
So one could get a pizza in Little Rock by the late '40s, but the writer can attest that through the '50s, there was no pizza in Searcy, nor most other Arkansas towns. (There was no McDonald's or KFC or Taco Bell, either. Locally owned burger-and-fry joints got the kids' business in those days.) Hot Springs was exceptional, as usual. Little Rock advertising executive Paul Johnson, who grew up in Hot Springs, says there was a pizza place in the spa city in the '50s, on Central Avenue, near the south end of Bathhouse Row. Long gone, its name may have been "Tony's."
Like Dean Martin, "They called it pizza pie," Johnson said. "You could play the slot machines while you waited for your pizza."
We don't know for sure when "Tony's" began serving pizza, or George's either. (The pizza chains didn't come to Arkansas until the mid-'60s. Shakey's was one of the first.) But in the case of George's, we can set boundaries.
Times columnist Robert S. McCord, who grew up in North Little Rock, ate his first pizza at George's, and he left Fayetteville and the U of A in 1950. Little Rock public relations man Bob Wimberley, originally of Jonesboro, arrived at George's in 1942. He didn't eat pizza, or hear of it. In those days, "There was no such thing as pizza." There was substantial food, though. "You could get a real good steak with sides and a drink at George's for 75 cents." And, always one of George's principal attractions, there was lively conversation among students, professors and business and professional people of the town.
Dr. William F. Harrison of Fayetteville, a well-known gynecological surgeon, owns George's now, and knows a lot of its history. He said the building was originally a wholesale grocery, constructed in the 1870s or '80s, and that in 1927, George Papadapolous and a brother bought the place. George became a restaurateur, doing business as George's Majestic Cafe. That was during Prohibition, so if George sold alcohol at that time, he did it illegally. In a 1965 article on George's, longtime U of A journalism professor W. J. Lemke called the proprietor "George S. Pappas," and Lemke seemed to know him well, and kept in touch after George moved to Tucson, Ariz. Harrison says he's been told that the original name was Papadapolous, and that George shortened and Americanized it, as many others did.
George served Greek food, as well as the steaks Wimberley remembers, but none of it was to the liking of one distinguished patron. Lemke writes that J. William Fulbright, a U of A law professor in the late 1930s, frequently lunched at George's. According to Lemke, the future great internationalist "distrusted the highly seasoned Greek dishes and always ordered Campbell's tomato soup out of a can."
America went wet again in 1933, and sometime after that a beer garden was opened behind the cafe. The beer garden was closed in the '50s, supposedly because of students throwing beer cans at trains on the track that ran right by George's. The garden reopened in the '60s or '70s and is going full blast now, with live music, according to Harrison.
George P. was the first legendary owner of George's. "George would take credit," Wimberley said. "I went in the service in '43, and I didn't get him paid off until I was out in the South Pacific. There were a lot of people like that." When Wimberley came back to Fayetteville in 1946, George's had been sold to another legend - Mary. Her full name was Mary Hinton, though a lot of students never knew the last name, and technically the lounge belonged to her and her husband, but you didn't see much of him. "He didn't work much," Harrison said. Mary worked long and hard and cheerfully. Like George, she was known to give credit to certain customers. A small, apparently ageless woman who spoke quietly, and never resorted to profanity, she was also her own bouncer. If somebody acted up, Mary would quieten them with "We don't act like that in George's."
Harrison was a U of A student, fresh out of the Navy, when he first came to George's in 1959. "I happened to be walking home one night and found this place full of students and professors. You could walk in and get a conversation about anything you wanted to."
Harrison became friends with Mary, and years later, after he'd begun practicing medicine at Fayetteville, his oldest daughter worked for Mary as a waitress.
By 1987, George's had fallen on hard times. It didn't even look the same. Dickson Street had turned dangerous in the '70s, and Mary boarded up the front windows after a patron in a nearby bar was shot through a window. Harrison decided to restore George's to its former glory. He bought the business from Mary in 1987 and leased the building. When she died a year and a half ago, he bought the building too. He's renovated it and uncovered the windows; people aren't getting shot on Dickson anymore. The bands are playing again - someone has said that George's is the oldest live-music venue in Arkansas - and they're playing different kinds of music. "There's a tremendous mix of people," Harrison said. Thursday night is hip-hop night. "We get a good crowd for that, mostly middle-class black people." That's something you didn't see at George's in the old says.
Someday, Harrison said, he'd like to see George's serving food again.