YORKTOWN – This summer, we traveled the Hampton Roads area and beyond to visit places loved, abandoned and forgotten. For the finale of this limited summer series, we’ll return home to the Yorktown riverside and visit one of the most iconic landmarks that once belonged to one of the Historic Triangle’s most beloved couples: Nick’s Seafood Pavilion.
An american dream
Nicholas (Nick) Matheos (Mathews) emigrated from Karpathos Island (Greece) to New York in 1920. Maria (Mary) Pappamihalopoulou emigrated from Sparta and worked as a seamstress, selling her pieces for 30.
In a 1980 interview with journalist Blaine Harden, Nick recalled meeting his wife saying, “One day in New York, in the Greek Orthodox Cathedral, that’s where I met Mary. She sang in the choir. I kind of picked it up.
The two got married and shared a dream of becoming American citizens. In this, the couple decided to move to Yorktown. Nick recalled, “I want to be an American citizen… so what better place to live than here where independence has been earned?
Along the sleepy river that once saw historic battles and just upstream from the Yorktown Naval Mine depot, Nick founded a meal counter in 1944. The modest building had 35 seats and quickly turned into a unmissable destination.
Nick’s culinary creations were known around the world to include Lobster Dien Bien, Shrimp Gavetsi, and Seafood Shish Kebob.
“The shish kebob was my creation,” Nick said. “I thought about it about seven or ten years ago. It contains shrimp, scallops, lobster, onions, tomatoes, mushrooms, all cooked in real butter. Ah, hah, they’re talking about it all the way to California.
Nick wasn’t bragging at all. Its delicious dishes have not only attracted locals and tourists alike, but also attracted prominent celebrities and dignitaries. The list of candidates included: John Wayne, Elizabeth Taylor (who was married to the late Senator John Warner at the time), Tennessee Ernie Ford, Randy Travis, Fred McMurray, 1980 Olympics torch runners, many representatives of the federal government and governors of the fifty states.
“We’re always busy,” Nick said. “We know each other all over the world, I tell you. Kings and queens, stars and politicians, we have them all here.
Due to the popularity of the pavilion, the restaurant expanded in 1970 to include a total of 440 seats. The walls were painted in a shade of purple and there were different thematic rooms: the “old dining room” (referring to the original part of the building), the Triton room and the “Nile room” (after a fountain located in the space that was supposed to resemble the Nile). Mary exhibited her collection of sculptures, for which she became known.
In the early 1980s, the Mathews were serving about 1,000 meals a day.
But Nick’s Seafood Pavilion was more than just a place to eat fresh and delicious seafood. It was a place to feel right at home and its owners embodied the spirit of what it means to be in Yorktown.
The spirit of Yorktown
While Nick Mathews was known for his delicious meals, he was more than just a chef. He and Mary both embodied the true spirit of what the Historic Triangle is known for: hospitality, selflessness, and a sense of home. The joy, passion and loving nature of the Mathews resonated with anyone who met any of them.
Nick and Mary had a warm and welcoming spirit towards everyone who came to their door. They hired employees who needed a helping hand to achieve the success the couple found. In 1960, the Mathews drew on their own immigration experiences and hired Elias Bichara, a Cuban refugee who, along with his family, was sponsored by Yorktown Baptist Church.
The generosity of the couple has no limits. Although they never had children, the Mathews have become everyone’s mother, father, friend and neighbor.
In 1976, a group of Boy Scouts from Washington was on the last leg of a cross-country bike trip. Mary invited the group to the restaurant for dinner. While the Scouts were enjoying their meal, three of the bikes were stolen. Once Mary found out about this, she called the local sheriff’s office. Not only was a report handed in, but Mary asked the MP to locate a bicycle store and ask the owner to reopen so that she could replace the boys’ bikes. That evening, Mary surprised the scouts with three new bikes and also arranged for their accommodation and breakfast the next morning.
The couple were also very proud of their adopted home in the historic Triangle. Nick and Mary both worked for civic causes and used the money they earned to give back. In 1972, the Mathews paid Yorktown’s electric bill when it fell overdue by $ 212. “How can anyone stand this historic Yorktown being in the dark,” recalled Mary. “I still hate the dark.”
That same year, the Mathews donated 23 acres of land to the York County Board of Directors. The land was idyllic in its view of the York River. When the board offered to pay the Mathews for this generous donation, the couple declined. The developers offered the couple between $ 500,000 and $ 700,000 for the property, but the Mathews turned it down.
On this land was built the Yorktown Victory Center, now known as the American Revolution Museum in Yorktown (or, as locals affectionately call it “ARMY”), located at 200 Water Street.
The couple were also known for their staunch support of the US military. The young sailors would get off on buses near the restaurant and whatever time of day all they had to do was knock on the door and there were Nick and Mary ready to greet them with a mug. of coffee and a telephone to call the neighboring base to organize transport.
A beloved lost icon
Mary had the honor of being the first immigrant chosen to sponsor a US Navy ship, the aptly named USS Yorktown (CG 48); a Ticonderoga-class cruiser. En route to Pascagoula, Mississippi in 1983 to christen the ship, the Historic Triangle was informed that Nick Mathews, a community pillar, philanthropist and beloved local legend, tragically passed away on April 14.
However, with Nick’s spirit close to her heart, Mary continued on to Pascagoula, baptizing the ship with the words: “In the name of the United States and in memory of my husband Nick, I baptize the Yorktown. To see the highlights of the baptismal ceremony, click here.
The loss of Nick has brought great grief to the people of the Hampton Roads Peninsula. A humble man with a generous spirit, he was remembered by friends who were more like family to him. Shortly after Nick’s death, famous local journalist Park Rouse wrote: “[He] was the most generous man I have ever met.
The following year, the Yorktown Victory Center presented a special exhibition in Nick’s honor entitled “An American Dream”. The exhibit featured artifacts from the Mathews wedding, an Ellis Island bench, and other memorabilia telling Nick’s own story of coming to America and achieving not only financial wealth but also spirit.
Mary continued with Nick’s Seafood Pavilion in honor of her husband and with the help of her dedicated staff. She loved the officers and sailors who served aboard the USS Yorktown (CG 48) as if they were her own; always ready to offer a meal when they came to the restaurant.
When Mary passed away on September 23, 1998, she bequeathed almost all of her estate to the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. She did this so that others would know, as Mary’s own words stated, “… the blessing of freedom and democracy that began in my native Greece and here …”
The couple who gave so much to the community they loved were buried together in a marble tomb on the grounds of the American Revolution Museum in Yorktown. It is there that they continue in their eternal rest.
US Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey Pyatt said: “Nick and Mary Mathews are prime examples of both Greek resilience and how Greece and America have come together over the years. years, united by our common experiences and values.
While Nick’s Seafood Pavilion continued for a short time after Mary’s death, in 2003, the York County Supervisory Board paid $ 3 million for all properties that were once owned by Mary, including Nick’s Seafood Pavilion. When the board of directors voted to demolish the restaurant, many expressed outrage as locals felt it disrespected the memory of the beloved couple.
However, Hurricane Isabel made a decision on behalf of the board and defends the restaurant. When he roared in the region in September 2003, the iconic building that has served generations of locals, visitors, celebrities, politicians and dignitaries; a place that service members called home, where memories were made, was severely damaged. It was ultimately decided that the best solution was to demolish the building instead of restoring it.
A lost landmark
After the demolition was completed, the land that once belonged to the Mathews and housed the beloved restaurant was redeveloped into what is now known as Riverwalk Landing. Where Nick’s Seafood Pavilion once stood, a parking lot has been built. If you were to visit the waterfront district today, there is hardly any sign of the couple who gave so much of themselves at the home they were so proud of.
After twenty years of service, including as part of the last incident of the Cold War, the USS Yorktown (CG 48) was decommissioned in 2004 and has been rusting ever since as part of the US Navy’s Inactive Fleet in Philadelphia .
For locals, the Mathews are never far away. Their patriotism is celebrated in the halls and exhibits of the American Revolutionary Museum in Yorktown. The Mathews Legacy Society was established for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation to honor members who have established planned giving for the foundation and its missions.
Nick’s stories, Mary’s motherly nature, and the generous spirit they gave so readily defined what it means to be Yorktown. They set a tone that continues to resonate even long after they have left this world and the physical symbols of their lives removed from the landscape.
It is perhaps in Nick’s own words that he said it best when he defined the life of a couple so well lived: “Hard work, decency and sweat on the forehead, that’s how I did it. “
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