One of Texas’ best barbecue restaurants, according to Texas Monthly magazine, sits on a corner lot in the 1000 block of Elm Street in East Waco. Tony DeMaria Jr.’s Bar-B-Que has earned mention as one of the state’s top 50 barbecue joints in that publication. But even better, it has earned the trust of customers who form a line that often stretches out the door.
The list of barbecue places that have failed to survive the Waco market is extensive, and includes Tony Roma’s, Smoky Bones and Dickie’s, to name a few.
But Tony DeMaria’s has thrived under the same family’s ownership since opening its doors in 1946, even though the location isn’t exactly on the beaten path for many Waco residents. Regardless, Tony DeMaria’s still is serving up succulent cuts of brisket, smoked sausage links, tender fall-off-the-bone ribs, smoked turkey and ring bologna in the same style it did 64 years ago. And it’s not unusual for the restaurant to close early when it runs out of meat. Customers flock to the place that has carved a niche for itself among Texas’ best. That’s no easy feat in a barbecue-crazed state.
For dessert, options often include two of the following three items: coconut cake, chocolate cake and banana pudding.
Geoff DeMaria, a 1980 graduate of Waco’s Richfield High School, owns the restaurant that his dad started more than six decades ago. Geoff has operated the restaurant since 1985.
Tony, who was a bombardier aboard a B-26 for the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, returned to Waco after the war. He opened a grocery store at 1300 Elm St., but also served sandwiches.
In 1954, Tony married Lil Cassiola of Shreveport, La. The two met because the DeMarias and Cassiola families were old friends.
The two ran the grocery store, located across the street from a fire station, and raised four children, Gary, Greg, Gina and Geoff.
“He cooked barbecue too, but only for take-out,” Geoff recalled.
Tony DeMaria died in 1991, but thanks to Geoff and other family members, the business continues to thrive.
Geoff, born in 1962, remembers Interstate 35 being built in the 1960s and watching with fascination while the workers operated the towering construction equipment that changed the face of transportation in Central Texas.
That construction also changed the main emphasis of the DeMarias’ business. Hungry construction workers eagerly visited the store for barbecue, and Tony put up a picnic table. Soon, more workers were flocking to the store, and store shelves were replaced with more tables.
Geoff said he has worked at the restaurant for as long as he can remember. At first, he would clean tables, sweep floors and take out trash, and his responsibilities increased when he was a teenager.
“I dreamed of owning this place one day, and it didn’t seem like my brothers and sister had quite the same passion for it that I did,” Geoff said.
The business remained at 1300 Elm St. until 1995, when it moved three blocks down the road to its current location.
Because of its popularity, the restaurant probably could have thrived anywhere in town, but Geoff said he had no thoughts of leaving Elm Street.
“I made sure we stayed in this location,” he said. “It’s where we started and where we’ll finish. We’ve been here since ’46, and I couldn’t see moving it anywhere else.”
Geoff’s wife Elizabeth works at the restaurant on Saturdays. His son Blake and nephew Anthony are mainstays at the restaurant. And employees Monique and Valerie also are like family.
When asked the most difficult thing about running a restaurant, Geoff paused and said it was a question he couldn’t answer.
“My son, my nephew and employees — everybody does their job and it all just flows,” he said. “We also have a limited menu, so it can’t be that difficult. The place just runs itself. And the customers are fantastic.”
Geoff said he knows quite a few customers by their first name. Many of the older customers watched him grow up.
“We see a lot of people on a weekly basis, or at least every two weeks,” he said. “A couple of people eat here almost every day. They are very loyal. It’s very rewarding. I’ve earned the respect of a lot of people around here, and that makes me feel good.”
That loyalty is rewarded by a product that almost sells itself.
“We sell out of meat almost every day,” Geoff said. “Wednesdays are generally our busiest day because of the all-you-can-eat ribs. It can be a madhouse sometimes.”
He said he doesn’t serve baby-back ribs because he doesn’t think they have the flavor that larger pork ribs do.
Ironically, Geoff said that he started out cooking ribs every day, and “it never took off. Now, we sell them one day a week and go through about 120 pounds of ribs every Wednesday.”
He said earning recognition in Texas Monthly was a “huge surprise.”
When the magazine released its list of the state’s best barbecue joints in 2003, he said several new customers visited the restaurant for the first time.
“It was amazing how many people came in and mentioned the magazine,” he said. “I didn’t have any idea that many people read Texas Monthly. Some of the customers told us they were going down the list and dining at each of the restaurants featured in the magazine. I considered it a huge honor.”
Anthony said the recognition brought some customers from great distances.
“We even had people from New York and Alaska telling us they came here because of the magazine,” he said.
One of the differences customers find is meat smoked using oak and hickory wood.
“Mesquite can be a little bitter at times,” Geoff explained.
The restaurant is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. But it’s best to call ahead (755-8888), because the restaurant closes once the day’s allotment of meat is sold out.
“One of the things I really like is the hours,” Geoff said. “I’m here from
7:30 a.m. until 2 p.m., and then have the whole afternoon to do things. This is a rewarding job.
“I like the people the most. A lot of our customers are longtime friends of the family.” Geoff said he also enjoys the relaxed atmosphere, and the way people from “all parts of society sit next to each other, and everybody gets along. It makes me feel good to see people getting along and enjoying themselves.”
Geoff said he doesn’t travel much, because “I work six days a week for life.”
He said he usually takes off one week a year, and an occasional weekend.
He, his son and nephew often play golf, and when they get the chance, watch their favorite spectator sport: hockey.
Although many Texans prefer football, Geoff said he likes the non-stop excitement of hockey, and was a season-ticket holder of the Waco Wizards before that hockey team folded a decade ago.
Much of the time, though, his thoughts are on family and the business he knows and loves so well.
“We opened this location July 5, 1995 (10 years after he bought the business from his father),” Geoff said. “It’s been very enjoyable. I love being here every day.”