Ask most longtime Faulkner County residents and they will tell you one of the finest restaurants in Conway from the 1940s through the 1960s was Tommy’s Restaurant. It was located on Harkrider about where IHOP is today and was the place for many social gatherings.
Tommy’s Restaurant was surrounded by the Ideal Motel, a 26 unit motel built in 1940 by Henry G. “Buck” and Leara Opitz. The motel changed owners in 1973 when Raymond Bright and his family took over the management of the motel.
Tom Paladino and Johnny DeSalvo ran Tommy’s Restaurant. Both born in Center Ridge, Arkansas, they were part of two large extended families who emigrated from Campania in southern Italy in the late 19th century. These Italian immigrants founded the Catholic Point community south of Center Ridge.
Catholic Point became well-known for its good cooks. In the 1950s and 1960s, “Uncle Tony” DeSalvo annually hosted members of the Arkansas General Assembly at his local winery. Legislators were served homemade Italian sausage and spaghetti. Thousands still attend the Catholic Point Picnic that has been held on the third Sunday in June since 1929.
Thomas Anthony Paladino (1917-2008) was said to take care of the business side of the restaurant. His restaurant experience included the Court Café downtown and the 64/65 restaurant before he opened Tommy’s. He married Mary Louise Adkins in 1938. She taught elementary school and was often at the restaurant with her husband.
Louise was the daughter of William A. Adkins, a special agent for the Missouri Pacific Railroad in Phillips County who was killed in a gun battle just north of Elaine in 1919. His death sparked the subsequent Elaine race riot. Louise and her older siblings, Rufus and Mabel, were all under the age of six when their father was killed.
Johnny DeSalvo (1910-1990) and his wife Josephine (1914-2008) moved back to Conway from Michigan in 1946. He ran DeSalvo’s Café on the west side of Harkrider (where O’Reilly Auto Parts is today) before Tommy’s opened. He always greeted everyone who came into Tommy’s with a “Hi Folks Hi!” (or some variation of that ) and he always seemed to be wiping counters.
His wife, Josephine, worked with him for 32 years in these restaurants. Josephine “Joan” was born in Michigan to Philip and Wilhemina Monterosso who were also Italian immigrants. Many have attributed the homemade bleu cheese dressing recipe to Mrs. Monterosso but others attribute it to Mrs. DeSalvo, Johnny’s mother.
Tommy’s menu, with the “Hi folks Hi!” at the top, included everything from tuna sandwiches to hamburgers and cheeseburgers with onion rings. Many patrons went there for the chicken livers and veal cutlets with mashed potatoes and gravy. Entrees were followed by pies—the coconut and lemon ice box pies were favorites.
Tommy’s was the place to be seen after church on Sunday. Extended families gathered there to visit and share Sunday dinner together. It was also the place to go eat after football games, prom or other dances. Tommy’s fancy atmosphere provided the perfect backdrop to celebrate special events ranging from a Valentine’s Day dinner to a wedding rehearsal dinner.
Several clubs and organizations had their weekly or monthly meetings there. Lions Club, American Association of University Women, Conway Junior Chamber of Commerce, Home and Garden Club, BPW, Junior Civic League, and the 20th Century Club met there regularly for lunch, dinner or special events.
In the late 1960s, Tommy and Johnny decided it was time to close the restaurant. Both were ready to retire and they saw that restaurant business was changing as fast food chains developed. Tommy would work in the Faulkner County Assessor’s Office for about a decade in his retirement years.
Hart’s Seafood would open in the space in 1981 after Riverfront Wharf, a popular fish house by the river, burned. Larry Hart and Vic Paladino, a cousin to Tommy and Johnny, were two of the partners who owned Riverfront Wharf. Hart’s Seafood would eventually relocate and the building which housed Tommy’s was torn down to make way for IHOP.
Cindy Burnett Beckman is a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history. She may be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.