Dee Felice Café: Covington's 30-year-old jazz cafe is more than homecooked cajun and creole

For those of you who haven't been to Dee Felice Café on the corner of Main and W. 6th Streets in Covington, you're missing out.

And it's not for the obvious reasons.

The New Orleans-style Cajun and Creole cuisine, served with a side of live jazz playing every Thursday-Sunday, is what the café is known for. But it's the two women behind the scenes, which can explain how a small café in the heart of Covington has been able to survive for 30 years despite the influx in trendy eateries. 

Dee Felice  has made it to the final round of WCPO's Meal Madness  after beating out 62 other restaurants. The cafe is now head-to-head with the 63-year-old iconic Montgomery Inn.

According to the near half-million votes submitted, Dee Felice has captured the community's attention just as much as Montgomery Inn. How?

Emidio 'De' DeFelice

The 18th century pharmacy-turned-café opened in 1984 by long-time jazz drummer and musician Emidio "De" DeFelice. 

Emidio opened the corner bar as part of a musical venture; it was a place for musicians to play music and drink booze. The business required a 50 percent food contribution in order to hold on to its liquor license. De hired a chef, built a kitchen and so it was born: Dee Felice Café. 

It wasn't long after the doors opened on Main Street that Emidio passed away from cancer and left the newly declared restaurant to his daughters and wife, Shirley DeFelice.

Of his three daughters, Shelly DeFelice Nelson assumed the responsibility. Shelly and Shirley became the two head owners of Dee's in the early '90s and described the café at the time as a more-relaxed "old-fashioned supper club."

The Heart Of It All

The restaurant, with ornate tin ceilings and black-and-white old-fashioned tile floors, has a classic, historic atmosphere. There are markings and carved holes on the floor of the dining room where the old parlor-pharmacy stools were screwed into the floor. There are raised tables where the pharmacy counter once stood. It allows the restaurant to retain some original Covington history.

The menu  has a variety of foods, featuring a spicy shrimp Creole, vegetarian Portabello Étouffée and blackened filet with shrimp-cream sauce, but it isn't limited to Louisiana-only style pickins. 

Flickering oil-candles are set on each table, awaiting guests as classical musical plays not too-loudly throughout the restaurant. The restaurant is intimate but also lively. Behind the open bar is a stage with drum sets and a grand piano. For four nights a week for the past 30 years, musicians such as John Von Ohlen, Kenny Poole and Lee Tucker have played for patrons at Dee's.

For Nelson, continuing the tradition of live jazz music at the restaurant is important to her.

"It's the essence of what my dad wanted to start here," she said.

Sixty-year-old Nelson works as a hostess Friday and Saturday night so she can keep her "finger on the pulse" of what her customers want and expect during their dining experience. Shirley, 86, works in the office maintaining the finances almost every day.

It's their love for each other, their guests and for their staff, which keeps Dee Felice alive.

"I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you," Nelson said to her mother when WCPO sat down with them for dinner recently. Shirley mirrored the statement, with tears in her eyes. It was the perfect mother-daughter moment.  The duo are full of life, laughter and hospitality which they incorporate into everyday service.

As for the staff, they are family, too. 

"It's like I have 40 kids," Nelson said, laughing. One staff member, 63-year-old Grant Price, who has been praised in various reviews online, has served at Dee Felice since it opened, 30 years ago. Nelson said he's always been considered part of the family.

It's Not Always Easy

Owner Shelly DeFelice Nelson and her 86-year-old mother Shirley DeFelice were surprised to learn they had made it to the final round of WCPO's Meal Madness.

"This couldn't have come at a better time," Nelson said. She described some hardships the 30-year-old restaurant has been dealing with. It was "good to know" that residents in Greater Cincinnati haven't forgotten them, she said.

"It's been a tough winter," Nelson said, noting that she's experienced a few years of ups and downs as the construction and development of venues along the banks and in Over-the-Rhine.

"It's hard to compete with The Banks and every new restaurant in Over-the-Rhine that has opened. Young people are going there and I need them to come over here and just see what we have," Nelson-DeFelice said, mentioning that business from her side of the river is often pulled to the other side.

When the economy hit home a few years back, management had to remove some pricey menu items, such as their beloved oyster dish and blackened scallops. If someone requests a favorite dish that has disappeared from the menu, she will special order the ingredients for that customer.

"The economy was dictating that we should do some changing," Nelson said.

They began to offer half orders to accommodate those that may be on a budget. Consistency and accommodation, Nelson said, is what keeps her customers coming back.

DeFelice-Nelson said they hope every guest who dines at Dee Felice will become regulars.

Photos courtesy of Dee Felice Café.

Connect with Jane Andreasik on Twitter: @jandreasik

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