HOUSTON, TX (KTRK) -- An iconic Houston restaurant was supposed to be celebrating a major milestone this week - 55 years in business.
But Tony's is now adapting to change amid the COVID-19 outbreak, offering customers curbside pickup and delivery options.
Tony's has been going strong in Houston since 1965, when Tony Vallone first opened his namesake restaurant. Back then, it was on Sage Road.
"In those days, people were not used to real Italian food," said Vallone. "And I was cooking real Neapolitan cuisine that I had grown up on. Getting supplies was not easy. With calamari, I had to go to a bait camp to buy it, no seafood house carried it. Many of the risotto dishes I had to make with rice when you couldn't get enough imports."
Vallone cooked in the kitchen and bussed dishes himself back then, a work ethic he learned working in kitchens when he was just twelve.
"I had a wonderful Neapolitan grandmother that was like my mother," said Vallone. "She would cook for restaurants a lot and sell her food and I would help her a lot."
But it was legendary Houston real estate developer Gerald Hines who helped turn Tony's into an icon.
"I was a young kid and rented my first restaurant from him, $500 a month," said Vallone. "He said, Tony, it's time for you to go. I was on a month-to-month lease. He said, I'm going to move you to Post Oak Boulevard. I go, Mr. Hines, I can't do that, I don't have any money. He said, I'm going to help you do it, but you're going to have to give me what I want. Fine dining all the way."
Many took notice, like well-known gossip columnist Maxine Mesinger, who covered the lifestyles of the city's rich and famous. She became a regular and helped put Tony's on the map.
"We've had dignitaries visit from all over the world," said Vallone.
Every U.S. President since Lyndon B. Johnson has dined at Tony's, including one unforgettable night three decades ago. It was 1989, and Tony's was the scene of a star-studded party at the unofficial end to the 1980's oil bust. That night, former President Richard Nixon dined with future President Donald Trump after a gala honoring the wife of then-governor John Connally. It was one of President Nixon's first public appearances since his resignation.
"I didn't think I would like him quite honestly," said Vallone. "He was quite interesting. He was into foods. Made me sit down and write out my recipe for cannelloni."
After 55 years, Tony's is still a go-to spot for celebrities and A-listers, but Vallone wants diners to know that there's something for everyone at Tony's.
"A lot of people think we're more expensive than we are," said Vallone. "We're no more expensive than a steakhouse. I actually enjoy meeting new diners as much as I do any of those large-time celebrities. Because when you're a people person, you enjoy meeting people from all walks of life."
And he hopes to keep welcoming new diners for many more years to come.
"I intend to go out with a fish in one hand and pasta in the other," said Vallone.
For hours and services to-go, visit tonyshouston.com.
Trailblazing restaurant Tony's celebrates 55 years in Houston
DAVE WARDS HOUSTON