Home > Alexander Payne, Entertainment, Entrepreneurial, Food, History, Omaha, Writing > George Payne and the Virginia Cafe: Restauranter Family Legacy of Filmmaker Alexander Payne

George Payne and the Virginia Cafe: Restauranter Family Legacy of Filmmaker Alexander Payne


NOTE: The primary source of this story, George Payne, the father of filmmaker Alexander Payne, died May 27, 2014. I’m reposting this in Mr. Payne’s memory.

As many of you know the filmmaker Alexander Payne is a Greek American with a fairly unpronouncable given name and he regards his heritage as much more than an aside.  It’s a core aspect of his life.  Hisv ery Greek family ran a popular, long gone eatery in downtown Omaha and some years ago I sat down with his father George to recall the life and times of their Virginia Cafe. Alexander, who has some fairly distinct childhood memories of the place, lent a few tidbits as well. Perhaps Payne’s most public display or acknoweldgment of his family and heritage came when he accepted the Oscar for Beast Adapted Screenplay last February and used the occasion to thank his date, who happend to be his mother Peggy, for enabling his early cinephile stirrings, even saying “I love you” in Greek before the worldwide audience.  If you happen to be a Payne fan then this blog is for you.  I’ve covered him for 15 years and counting and you’ll find the fruit of that work here.

This is not the Virginia Cafe the Payne family owned and operated in Omaha but it will do for the purpose of this story

 

 

George Payne and the Virginia Cafe: Restauranter Family Legacy of Filmmaker Alexander Payne

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

It’s nearly 40 years since Alexander Payne‘s family owned and operated the Virginia Cafe, a restaurant that for generations held a niche in the city’s downtown dining market. Recently, the filmmaker’s father, George Payne, shared  some history and memories of the place and the family with The Reader.

George’s immigrant father, Nicholas (Papadopoulos) Payne, was founder and proprietor of the Virginia. Nick, as the patriarch was called, came to America in 1910, learning the confectionery trade from an uncle, John Birbilis, who helped Nick and brother Peter open the Palace of Sweets in Council Bluffs. In 1920 Nick, with cousin Fred Schizas and two other partners, bought the Calumet, a large, busy, around-the-clock food joint at 1413 Douglas Street that dated back to 1893. They remodeled it, renamed it the Virginia and kept it one of Omaha’s few 24-7 operations, George said. The other partners eventually dropped out.

According to George the Virginia served strictly American fare — steaks, chops, sandwiches, salads, a full breakfast line, daily lunch and dinner specials and traditional holiday favorites. The cafe housed its own bakery, had its own butcher and stocked a freezer with eight kinds of ice cream.

At its peak, he said, the popular cafe kept a payroll of 85 employees on three different shifts and served up to 3,000 diners a day.

George joined his father in the family business in the early ’50s. An Omaha Central High, Dartmouth and Northwestern University grad, George is a World War II vet who worked on the war production board in Washington D.C., where he met his wife, Peggy. He and Peggy settled in Omaha, where the youngest of their three sons, Alexander, fell in love with movies.

The future filmmaker was only 9 when a fire destroyed the Virginia but he has fond memories of the cafe.

“People loved that place,” Alexander Payne said by phone. “There was no key to the front door. They didn’t need one — they never closed. I used to like to go back to the kitchen and watch the chefs work. I remember all the wait staff and cashiers were so nice to me because, of course, I was the owner’s son. Our family ritual was dinner there every Thursday night.”

The Paynes ordered right off the menu.

While no Greek food was on the menu, the restaurant embodied Nick Payne’s classic immigrant made-good success story. Like many newcomers he went out of his way to be a super patriot. He sold millions of dollars worth of government Liberty Bonds during the Second World War, said George Payne, who added his father landed “quite a coup” when he inked a contract to feed all area military enlistees. From WWII through Vietnam, the Virginia served “last meals” to wide-eyed recruits en route to basic training.

George Payne

 

 

“Those are the kinds of things that are a little unique from the Virginia,” the dapper George Payne said. There’s more. The cafe played a part in a tense chapter of Omaha history when a 1935 streetcar strike erupted in violence. George was 20 then and working part-time in the restaurant. Martial law was declared and more than 1,000 National Guard troops sent in to restore order. “That was serious stuff,” George recalled. The Virginia, located right on the streetcar line, was near the conflict between strikers and strikebreakers. The soldiers’ presence quelled the rioting. The cafe was commandeered into serving three meals a day to the troops.

“They came in and took over our business,” said George, who remembers the first guardsmen tromping in with their boots and packs and hanging their rifles on coat hooks attached to the fine mahogany wainscoting, which sent his father into a fit. From that point on the soldiers stacked their weapons safely out of harm’s way.

The Virginia was justly proud of its decor. Its glorious neon signage, plate glass windows, decorative tile-fronted exterior and rich mahogany interior with white table cloth covered tables and booths were straight out of an Edward Hopper painting. Distinctive murals of the American landscape and fine renderings of all 50 state seals adorned the lounge and dining room and the massive cross-section of a redwood tree was mounted in the party room.

“There wasn’t a restaurant in town that had that kind of atmosphere at all,” George said. “It was very well done. My dad had vision.”

This eclectic design reflected the diverse customers the Virginia catered to  — professionals, office workerspoliticos, housewives, clerks, stock boys, cabbies, crack-of-dawn delivery men, night owls and bar crawlers.

Up front, right at the door greeting customers, was Nick, trademark cigar in hand, dressed impeccably in a suit and tie and kibitzing with the line of people that formed at lunchtime. If anyone tired of the wait and started to leave George said Nick would coax them to stay with, “‘Don’t go. You know you’ll be back in five minutes. Where you going to go?’ He had a way with people.”

The cafe enjoyed a brisk trade before it went up in flames in 1969. Neither Nick nor George were there when the fire broke out on a Sunday night. They were awakened with the news and came down to see a burned out shell. After two full days of being hosed down, George said, the building collapsed in on itself. It was a total loss. George salvaged a few mementos and artifacts. There was talk of reopening at another spot but the family opted to walk away. The site of the Virginia was sold to the city, which built the W. Dale Clark Library there.

“I really didn’t quite know what I was going to do…” George said. He wound up with the Sheraton Hotels group and then the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration — posts that took him around the world.

Nick Payne left a rich legacy that George has carried on. The elder Payne helped found the Omaha Restaurant Association, which his son presided over as president, as he did the Nebraska Restaurant Association. In 1956 American Restaurant Association Magazine inducted Nick into its Hall of Fame. The father was heavily involved with St. John Greek Orthodox Church. Nick Payne died in 1989. George Payne, now 92, has continued, with Peggy, his father’s support. The family, who’s made periodic trips to their ancestral homeland, retains close ties to Greece, where Alexander Payne intends to one day shoot a film.

 

 

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