Although I can't say I ever knew Joseph Novak, I never felt like a stranger around him.
The first time my family visited his family's restaurant, way back in the mid-'80s, when it was still Novak's Hungarian Paprikas, I was 12, maybe 13, my palate for the exotic nil.
But the meal I ordered — classic chicken paprikas — converted me, and Joseph had a lot to do with that. Sensing my hesitation to venture past my epicurean limits, he kept returning to our table and asking, "How do you like it? How do you like it? Wonderful! Next time you should try ... "
Over the next 30 years and subsequent locations, there were plenty of next times, and plenty of Joseph encounters. I doubt he remembered entertaining some goofy preteen circling his first Hungarian dish, but he was forever welcoming. "Hello!" he'd say, as brightly as he'd probably greeted everyone all his life.
That's what always struck me about Joseph: He was genuine. There was no biz-school veneer, no calculated polish to his manner. He opened his doors, selflessly, then, with his family, filled your belly with food and your heart with gratitude.
Every Thanksgiving the Novaks hosted anyone in need of a meal. There were so many souls they sometimes came in shifts. But Joseph never seemed concerned about the numbers. As he explained to the Democrat-Herald in 1999, "If you can feed 30, why can't you feed 60? If 60, why not 120?" All that mattered was that no one left hungry — something not even the most gluttonous appetite could ever claim.
A friend and I recently lunched at Novak's, now downtown in a wonderfully homey setting. This time I had the kase spaetzle, imagining Joseph over my shoulder: "Next time, next time ... ." We discussed restaurants we'd known as kids, and wasn't it great that Novak's persevered, that authentic kolbasz was only a phone call away?
What's kept it running all these years? The answer is simple: family. The Novak family, plus the family they built: us. As Joseph said shortly before he and his wife, Matilda, opened the place on April 25, 1984, "We love people. We love friends, and we have a lot of friends."
That was true then, and it's even more true now. His circle was ever-growing, past restaurant walls and into our lives as a leader, booster and philanthropist. The accolades he earned were deserved but for him, unnecessary. It was his pleasure.
It's been our pleasure, too.
Thank you, Joseph. For everything.
IN THIS SERIES:
April 23, 1984: "Hungarian restaurant to open Wednesday"
November 25, 1999: "Dinner with the Novaks"
September 4, 2015: "Novak's starts new chapter downtown"