I often told Fifi Berry that I rarely had been able to complete a conversation with her in the 32 years I patronized her restaurant.
The reason was understandable. The hospitable veteran restaurateur was always off her perch at the bar in an instant to greet customers to Fifi’s Reprise. Likewise, she was just as quick to interrupt our conversation to thank each and every customer when they left.
Most of her customers didn’t realize that the dinner hour was her second shift. She also worked every afternoon at the restaurant, went home to change, and returned fresh, smartly dressed, and eager to be a friendly host who knew many customers by name.
Such hospitality is remarkable in today’s fast-moving restaurant industry in which often both customers and owners are nameless.
Fifi kept the six-day-a-week pace since 1980. Vacations were not on her calendar. Nor was a night away from her own place to visit another restaurant. She was always there.
But, on Dec. 12, when more than 250 people jammed into the five-star restaurant on Bernath Parkway, Fifi was not there and with good reason.
To watch the contents of the restaurant that represented half of her lifetime go on the auction block was too heart-wrenching for the woman who coveted her Lifetime Achievement award from the Ohio Restaurant Association.
The auction was also bittersweet for longtime customers who ventured into the crowded arena to see and to bid on something they wanted as a keepsake, be it a chafing dish, a painting, or perhaps the grand piano or Italian Merino lamps.
While there was a small band of regular customers and employees who acknowledged the sadness of the occasion, there seemed to be more people who had never been to Fifi’s.
More than one person asked, “Was the food here good?” In answer I could have listed dishes I already miss: the clam chowder, lamb lollipops, sea bass, short ribs, cognac dressing, tomato bread, and crème brulee.
A man who just came to look, and not bid, was an obvious first timer. “Even in all the mess, I can tell how beautiful it must have been," he commented.
“Is there a real Fifi? Is she here?”
Overheard were testimonials from former customers who counted it as their favorite place to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries.
That’s the way it goes when a locally owned restaurant closes and we have seen many favorites disappear in Toledo. Suddenly everyone wants to go there and you have to ask, where have they been?
It took two auctioneers from Wilson Auction and Realty Co. in Bryan to sell thousands of items in four hours.
Restaurant owners were the high bidders on equipment to recycle in their establishments. There will be bits and pieces of Fifi’s all over northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan.
Tables were stacked high with sauté pans, stockpots, and white dinnerware in all sizes, from soup cups to large dinner plates. Black plates with Fifi’s logo were hot items.
Longtime staff members Sue Kasap, Brian Mock, and Ahmed Vacz milled through the crowd. Sue and Brian have teamed to do catering. Brian kept his cool until he went into the kitchen and saw it torn up. “That really got me,” he lamented. Ahmed’s keepsake is a four-tiered wire wine rack to use to display knick-knacks in his family room.
In addition to the dining room and lounge tables and chairs, furniture included outdoor pieces that were new when a fenced patio was added in 2009 after a sale of the restaurant soured and Fifi reopened. That was when the name was changed from Fifi’s to Fifi’s Reprise.
Some treasures stayed behind. A white Grecian statue that originated at the old Porch of the Maidens did not sell, perhaps because of the difficulty moving it. A “Not For Sale" sign was posted on Fifi’s Back, a painting by Kathryn Wixey of Toledo done for the reopening, and no one bid enough to meet the reserve number on the 14-foot painting of Fifi by the late Doug Roether of Toledo for the first opening and that for many years was the bar background.
Of course I held my auction number high and added purchases to an already bulging household. The black leather stool that was for years at the reservation podium now has a place of honor in the dining room.
What will Fifi and Kelley, her daughter who spent as many hours at the restaurant, do? I have encouraged Kelley to watch for a window to open. One always does when we close a door.
This one may have a red ribbon. Merry Christmas.
Mary Alice Powell is a retired Blade flood editor.
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