Restaurants of Oxford’s Past

Restaurants of Oxford's Past Intro Image

Football and Faulkner, kudzu and coeds. Oxford, Mississippi, has as many claims to fame as it does traditions, but it’s the restaurants in this small southern town that are the glue of the local community. Places for catfish, cocktails, and conversation, restaurants here are a little bit unlike anything outsiders might be used to. And they always have been. From the midnight munchies at the Hoka Theater’s Moonlite Café, one of Willie Morris’s old haunts, to the tangy shrimp sauce at The Mansion, where Faulkner went for barbecued chicken and peach cobbler, a unique culinary—and cultural—history is still being told. The doors of these places may have closed long ago, but the memories are still very much alive.

Interviews

Angelo Mistilis – Mistilis Restaurant

Tom Mistilis arrived in the United States from Greece in the early part of the twentieth century. After making his way through a steel mill up north and a bus station cafe out west, he eventually made his way to Mississippi. With a fellow countryman at his side, Tom came to Oxford and quickly set up shop. From a cafe on the campus of the University of Mississippi in the late 1920s, to his son Angelo’s own restaurant forty years later, the Mistilis family has blessed Oxford with some memorable meals.

Annie Isaiah – Isaiah’s Busy Bee (1971 – late 1990s)

Born in Oxford, Georgia Isaiah spent thirty years cooking for two chancellors at the University of Mississippi. When she finally retired, she still had the urge to feed her friends and neighbors and opened her own cafe, Isaiah’s Busy Bee, on Christmas Eve 1971. For the next twenty or so years, she plucked vegetables from her garden, fried chicken, and baked pound cakes to the delight of the greater Oxford community. Mrs. Isaiah is gone and so is her cafe, but memories of this woman and her glorious food still swim in many hearts and stomachs around this small college town.

Susie Marshall B & B Cafe

B&B Cafe: 1920s-late 1960s/early 1970s

Photographer Martin J. Dain visited Oxford in the early 1960s to document William Faulkner’s fabled Yoknapatawpha County. With many days spent wandering and photographing, Dain eventually stumbled upon the African-American-owned B & B Cafe that was tucked away in an alley on the northwest side of the town’s square. Luckily, he snapped a few photographs while he was there. The picture here is one of the very few, if not the only, known images of the place. While long gone, the cafe is still part of the collective memory, and there are many locals who are quick to share their stories.

Charles Reagan Wilson – Isaiah’s Busy Bee Cafe (1971 – late 1990s)

Charles Reagan Wilson moved to Oxford to teach at the University of Mississippi in 1981 (he later served as the director of the Center of the Study of Southern Culture). He soon became a regular at Georgia Isaiah’s Busy Bee Cafe. He struck up a friendship with Mrs. Isaiah. He memorized her menu by heart: “[Busy Bee] was one of … Continued

Ron Shapiro – Moonlite Cafe at the Hoka Theater (1978-1996)

Ron Shapiro made his way to Oxford in the late 1970s, and the town hasn’t been the same since. Soon after arriving, he and a few others opened an art house movie theater, The Hoka. Adding a cafe seemed a logical next step, and so began the Moonlite Cafe. With late-night munchies, as well as more sophisticated movie-themed fare, the Moonlite Cafe became a haunt for local characters and celebrities alike. On any given night you might find students or professors, artists or writers, bellied up to the counter for a fix of the cafe’s famous cheesecake or a bowl of vegetarian chili. Unfortunately, the curtain came down on The Hoka and its Moonlite Cafe in 1996, but Ron is still in Oxford, making plans for the next big idea to shake things up.

Martha Starnes, original owner - Starnes Catfish Place

Starnes Catfish Place: 1978-1996

Billy Starnes was a commercial fisherman who caught everything that would brush up against his line at Sardis Lake. In 1979, he talked his wife into expanding their fish and bait shop business to include a cafe, where he could show off his finest catch, as well as some of his personal recipes. Starnes Catfish Place in Abbeville quickly became a popular spot. With their famously generous plates of fish, slaw and their unique onion salad, the couple couldn’t keep the crowds away. Billy Starnes passed away a few years ago, but Martha is still feeding the masses. Abbeville Catfish, a place she and her husband originally opened in the early 1990s, is under her watch once again. A few things have changed, but the great food and warm welcome have certainly stayed the same.

The Mansion: 1942-1967

For many years, Aubrey Seay managed the cafeteria at the University of Mississippi, establishing lifelong relationships with faculty and students alike. His love of the university and the surrounding town of Oxford, Mississippi, cemented his reputation before he evened opened the doors on his famous restaurant, The Mansion. For twenty-five years, The Mansion was the place to be. With his grand Marble Room, Mr. Seay could welcome civic clubs, school dances, and even the press that was in town covering the 1962 integration of his dear Ole Miss. Mr. Seay passed and The Mansion burned in 1967, but the memories of the man and his restaurant remain.