The real spirit of this diner shines through
By Marsha Kay Seff
Her employees call the 60-year-old owner of Marie’s Café “octopus lady,” because she juggles so many tasks at once.
Maria “Marie” Nealson cooks, cleans, waits and busses tables at her North Park restaurant from sun-up to well past sunrise. The place is open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to as late as 3 a.m., and the proprietress often works into the wee hours.
“I could tell you a story and a half,” she says, flipping pancakes and frying bacon, chatting with a regular and bussing a table.
The divorced mother of three and grandma of nine – she cares for two of them with the help of a live-in nanny and a roommate – says simply, “Work is fun.”
Working by her side and seeming to have almost as much fun is her 30-year-old son, Erik Nealson.
Five years ago, the two weren’t sure how much time that had left together. That’s when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and, she says, given six months to live. Undaunted, Nealson underwent a double mastectomy and returned to the restaurant in just a few days – with drains still in her chest. She worked right through her chemotherapy.
Now, she says, she’s in “total remission.” With typical good humor, she points to her chest and explains her speed: “There’s nothing to slow me down.”
The disease and therapy also left her with dark brown hair. Though it’s long again, she says, it used to be blond.
She’s always been good at transformation, Nealson says, ticking off a long list of former jobs in industries from taxes, telecommunications and solar energy to restaurants, where she was a waitress. She also ran a daycare center for the disabled. “When someone says you can’t do something, my answer is, ‘Don’t tell me it can’t be done.’”
When she couldn’t find a job seven years ago, she decided to make her own. She gathered up all the paper bags in which she had stored years of tips and dumped them on her living-room floor. That money, together with some other savings, was enough to buy the ’50s-style eatery.
Nealson specializes in the same old-fashioned home-cooking she served her family. “My mom was Italian and could make something out of nothing and, sometimes, it was nothing and it tasted really good.”
The café’s varied breakfast, lunch and dinner menus include eggs Benedict, $9.95; meatloaf sub, $9.25; meat lasagna, $12.75; beer-battered cod, $8.95, and a 12-ounce New York steak, $13.95. Varied daily specials include barbecue ribs and an 18-ounce porterhouse steak. The $4.95 daily senior breakfast includes two eggs, potatoes, bacon or sausage, toast and coffee.
The diner is decked out in red-vinyl booths and black-and-white linoleum floors. Eleven round stools belly up to the counter connecting the two kitchens. Hanging on the two-tone-pink walls are pictures and posters of Bettie Page, Laurel and Hardy, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Charlie Chaplain. There’s also an “Oprah Winfrey Up By Your Bootstraps” award.
Besides raising her family alone, buying the café, and surviving cancer, Nealson says, she made it through an earthquake retrofit at the restaurant, followed by rain and a collapsed roof. She says the resulting black mold that collected in her lungs landed her in the emergency room and five days in the intensive care unit.
Then, as expected, she was back at her grill. It’s because she’s been to the bottom herself that she can empathize with others. She doesn’t turn anyone away from her door, offering soup to the homeless and meals to families who are out of work. Nealson puts some of the families to work, but says they all pay her back when they find work again.
The restaurant has done well despite the vagaries in the economy, she says, because of the “good, versatile food, consistency and our spirit influence.”
Yes, she said, “spirit.” Sometimes, in the middle of the night, when the radio isn’t on, Nealson says, music starts playing. But it’s not just the ghost that makes the restaurant good. “I make the restaurant good.”
3016 University Ave.