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Gary Borders: Longview restaurant tradition comes to an end

Johnny Cace's Seafood and Steak House / Facebook

Johnny Cace’s Seafood and Steak House in Longview served its final meal last Saturday night. A 66-year tradition ended with a two-month farewell. It brought out folks who became engaged, celebrated birthdays or had family reunions at the iconic restaurant. Or they simply patronized the place because of its great Cajun seafood and impeccable service.

The strain of running a large restaurant that needed renovation and updating was finally too much for Cathy and Chelsea Cace — the mother-and-daughter team who kept the operation going after Gerard Cace died suddenly of a heart attack in 2012. Gerard, a son of the founder and two years ahead of me at Longview High School, was the heart and soul of the place. Gerard was present at nearly every major civic event — catering the chamber of commerce banquet and Wunderfall at St. Mary’s Catholic School, to name just two. There are many more.

Gerard is missed in Longview, for his unstinting dedication to the community and his giving nature. And now the restaurant he took such joy in operating has finally closed its doors. It is understandable, but sad.

Johnny Cace and my grandfather were colleagues. My grandfather was field director for the East Texas Area Council of the Boy Scouts. Cace did a great amount of volunteer work for the organization. As we waited last Wednesday night to get a table, I spotted a plaque to him from the Boy Scouts high above other memorabilia lining the walls, including a black-and-white photo of the restaurant’s original downtown location.

On Sunday mornings, Johnny Cace was a constant presence at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, where we attended. He often served as usher, shaking hands and making folks feel welcome, as he did in the restaurant.

Gerard and Cathy, later joined by Chelsea, kept up that tradition when Gerard took over in the 1980s. They were a constant presence at the restaurant and made you feel at home, as did their staff — many of whom had worked there for literally decades. And while the dark paneling was dated, and the carpet a bit worn, the linen tablecloths and dignified atmosphere went hand-in-hand with the outstanding cuisine.

People came here from all over East Texas during the restaurant’s heyday. When I was in high school, Johnny Cace’s was where you took your prom date if you could afford it. It is where folks of my age and older brought out-of-town visitors for dinner right up to the end.

I am allergic to oysters so I can’t speak to one of the restaurant’s claims to fame: “The Oysters You Eat Here Today, Slept in their Shells Last Night.” But I can stake a close acquaintance with the famed Shrimp in Shorts, lightly battered jumbo style, with a loaded baked potato and cole slaw. The cheese grits with shrimp served for Sunday brunch may be heart attack food, but it was worth the risk.

We arrived Wednesday night, three nights before it closed for good, just after 5 p.m. to learn the wait would be at least an hour. Folks swapped stories along the hall leading to the bar, about when they first dined here. I enjoyed listening to their tales as we waited. The wait turned out to be nearly two hours, since the place was packed to bursting.

Finally my wife and I were seated. As always, the food was great and service outstanding. All around us, people ate, talked and clinked glasses in toasts.

It is the end of an era in my hometown. I wish Cathy and Chelsea, and the rest of the family well in their future endeavors, whatever they might be. They were a class act, and goodness knows they deserve to take a break.

Gary Borders has been an East Texas journalist and editor for more than 40 years. He works now as a freelance writer, editor and photographer. You can see his work at garyborders.com. He has written for World Wildlife magazine, Texas Monthly, Texas Observer and Airstream Life.