The Frisco is closing this week, bringing an end to the Night Hawk restaurant chain that started in 1932. For a look back at the restaurant, Eater spoke with several key people in the 86-year-old business, who had many stories to share.
The Night Hawk and Frisco’s legendary history illustrates the character of founder Harry Akin, stories of desegregation, and even a few celebrity brushes. The tales come from R. Harry Akin, the restaurant’s current owner, nephew of founder Harry Akin, and a former waiter; Hoover Alexander, founder of the restaurant Hoover’s Cooking who started his culinary career as a busboy for the Night Hawk and rose the ranks to management; and Frank Young, who also started as a busboy at age of 18 and eventually managed all the locations.
Mr. Akin Gives a Banking Lesson
After six months on the job, 18-year-old busboy Frank Young asked Harry Akin for a raise. Instead, Akin had Young write down all the bills that he owed, how much he made per month, and figured that he was netting $200 every month. Then Akin took him to the bank to open a savings account, instructing the banker to automatically deposit $30 from Young’s paycheck each month.
The Night Hawk was one of the first restaurants in Austin to use real silver in its place settings. “We didn’t have any success with the silver,” explained Young, “because everybody wanted souvenirs.” Young remembered one woman who called him over to the table three times complaining that she hadn’t received her silverware. “You couldn’t afford to accuse someone of stealing,” he said. So when the woman checked out, he took the bill from the waitress and added a $50 charge that said, ‘souvenir.’
“Boy that lady got so mad, she grabbed that silver out of her purse and just threw it on the floor,” Young recalled. “She was outdone. But I never accused her of stealing.”
No Tolerance for Discrimination
Alexander relayed the story of longtime employee Mary Rodriguez, affectionately known as Mary Rod, who came to the Night Hawk after experiencing discrimination at other restaurants. During a staff meeting, another waitress said that she wouldn’t work with a Mexican-American, referring to Rodriguez, so Akin took that server into his office and wrote her a severance check on the spot. Rodriguez would continue to work at the Night Hawk for another 50 years.
The Pie Man
Akin told the story of pie-maker Roy Mallett, “Mr. Roy,” who was unable to leave his friends and legacy at the Night Hawk. Even though he retired 20 years ago, complete with a retirement party, he came back.
“One time, someone stopped me in the parking lot, said, ‘Oh, Mr Akin, the pies are just as good as they were 25 years ago,’” Akin recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, they should be, the same person is making them.”
Lyndon B. Johnson’s Entrance
Young also relayed a story of serving Lyndon B. Johnson at the Night Hawk while he was president. To avoid the crowds, Johnson had his limousines create a distraction at the front of the restaurant while he snuck into the private dining room through the back entrance.
Young recalled President Johnson saying, “‘You know, it’s a shame. I passed the law for you people, and I’m still going through the backdoor,’” referring to the just-passed Civil Rights Act, which made illegal to ban black customers.
“So I hit him on the shoulder,” Young remembered, “and I said, ‘Mr. President, don’t worry, you’ll get used to it — I did.’” (The president reportedly appreciated this cheeky response.)
Two Tables for Mr. Giant
Young recalled several celebrities dining at the Night Hawk, including television actors like Donna Douglas fromThe Beverly Hillbillies, Amanda Blake and James Arness from Gunsmoke, and the actors from CHiPs. The restaurant also hosted a number of wrestlers, given its vicinity to the now-demolished Austin City Coliseum, which included Andre the Giant.
“Oh, that man will eat up everything you had!” Young said. “We had to put two booths together cause he couldn’t sit on one. If he was ordering a steak, he’d order maybe three orders of shrimp to nibble on until his steak was ready.” To impress girls, Andre the Giant would reportedly pull a ring off his finger and slide a half-dollar coin through it.
The Best Tip
Like everyone at the restaurant, R. Harry Akin had to start at the bottom at the Night Hawk location near campus as a waiter. “Twenty five cents was a good tip. Waiters would compete with each other to wait on customers who we knew would leave as much as a quarter. I generally waited on the counter, one reason for my smaller tips, but in all the time I was there, I only received a tip as large as a dollar one time.” He added, “I think that person was intoxicated.”