It’s so far south on Kentucky Avenue that, these days, you’re not likely to find it by accident. But that’s the allure of the House of Como. You go there on purpose with a pocket full of cash and know that you’ll most likely be surrounded by regular customers. They might be owner Martha Hage’s classmates when she was in the first grade, who walk in cracking jokes and giving hugs. It might be the chief financial officer of an Evansville business, who’s quick to laugh and just as comfortable sitting at the bar. It might be Robin Bentley, a waitress from Henderson, Ky., who’s worked at the restaurant for 15 years. And it might be a complete stranger who makes a three-hour drive just to eat a plate of djage.
“This is a great establishment,” the man says as he takes a break from his baked chicken with meat, white rice, and pine nut stuffing. He’s an unusual patron of the restaurant in that he declines to introduce himself, but it’s clearly not because of his feelings about his meal. He’s been to the House of Como around 25 to 30 times, mostly before he moved to St. Louis. The djage was the first dish he ever had there, and it’s just one of the restaurant’s many Lebanese dishes including kibi seneya (baked fine ground meat and wheat) and yebra malfoof (rolled cabbage leaves with meat). Yet even with all those choices, this older gentleman always selects the djage. “I said, ‘This is it.’ You won’t go any place and find chicken with cinnamon on it.”
Martha’s husband, George, a Chicago native, opened the first House of Como in 1960 at 2802 S. Kentucky Ave., about a block away from its current location. He dreamed of owning a restaurant that served his family’s Lebanese cuisine. “The expressway was just being thought about at that time,” Martha says, adding that the original House of Como was flanked by various businesses fairly nearby like the Family Drive-In Theater and the Farmer’s Daughter.
That’s changed now. Most of those businesses have closed or moved due to the new geometry of the Lloyd Expressway. These days, much of S. Kentucky Avenue south of E. Riverside Drive is lined with auto stores, and the House of Como is one of the last stops before the Veterans Memorial Parkway.
The restaurant moved to 2700 S. Kentucky Ave. in 1968-1969 after faulty wiring caused a fire in the bandstand area of the original location just a block away. In May 2011, a smoke fire in the kitchen caused the restaurant to close for about a year and one-half while various repairs and changes were made.
Yet the décor has remained substantially the same. Strings of Christmas lights line the edge of the walls near the ceiling, and a life-sized Santa Claus stands near the bathrooms — and on the roof.
“Christmas was a favorite time of year” for George, Martha says. “It was something that George knew that kids liked.”
George died nine years ago, but he’s never far from Martha’s thoughts. The couple was married for 43 years, and she’s kept the restaurant largely as it was before he passed away. That means she’s left some of the framed pictures of horse races on the walls, too. Gambling was George’s favorite hobby, she says, and he was a regular at Ellis Park.
“I feel his presence here,” Martha says. “A lot of his memories and things that are his are in here. Customers say that they just feel like he would be walking in the door.”
And Martha likes that. She likes that the man from St. Louis who didn’t give his name knew her husband, and that he was sure to tell her that during his meal. She likes that her nine employees consider the restaurant an extension of their own families, and that almost all of those who work there now knew George personally. And she likes that George was so well liked that, even after his death, she was able to hear how he felt about her. She recounts a conversation shared with her by Randy Pearson, the owner of Rivertown Butcher Shop in Newburgh, where the House of Como purchases most of its meats.
“He talked to my husband the night before he died, and George said, ‘Randy, tell my wife I love her,’” Martha says. She always went to visit George in the hospital in the mornings, but Randy had gone to see him that evening. “He must have known that he wasn’t going to make it.”
George died early on a Saturday morning. The funeral was the following Tuesday. That Wednesday, Martha was back at work at the restaurant. “I could have stayed home and whined around about it, but I just jumped right in there and kept going.”
George may be gone, but the House of Como is still very much a family business. The couple’s two daughters, Laura and Libby, help out at the restaurant, and Martha says that if she were to become ill, they would both step in and take over.
Meanwhile, Martha smiles, welcoming everyone who walks through the front door.
“I know a lot of our customers are longtime customers,” Martha says. “We do have people who say this is my first time and it won’t be my last. They seem to enjoy it, and enjoy themselves.”
Location: 2700 S. Kentucky Ave.
Dining and Bar Hours: 4 to 9 p.m. Tues.-Sat.
Adult Beverages: Yes
Corkage fee: $10
Payment: Cash or check only.