A legendary character in the Dallas restaurant world has passed away: Barbara Sivils, who was a staple at Mama's Daughter's Diner, died on March 24. She was 84.
Barbara was a larger-than-life character who worked as a server at the home-cooking restaurant on Industrial Boulevard (now Riverfront) from the day it opened in 1988, identifiable by her well-coifed hair, definitive eyeliner, sequinned tops, blingy jewelry, and big dose of old-school sass.
You couldn't enter the restaurant without seeing her at the cash register, monitoring the entry like a hawk. She became the restaurant's main character, a mini-celebrity with whom regulars posed for photographs, and such an icon that she was frequently mistaken for the "mama" in Mama's.
Owner Nancy Procaccini, whose mother Norma founded the chain and was the actual Mama, graciously allowed Barbara to rule the roost.
"She came to us from the Kettle Restaurant," Nancy says. "It's kind of an inside joke in our family that Barbara showed up at the waitress meeting the day before we opened and we all asked each other, 'Did you hire her?'"
Barbara worked at Mama's, while her equally colorful sister Natalie Woodley worked at Original Market Diner, the other home-cooking spot right down the street — colorful enough that the Dallas Morning News did a story on them.
"They called themselves 'The Sin Sisters' — they were a hoot," Nancy says. "They were characters and you loved to be in their energy and space. And they had such a following. They had the kind of customers who would take them to New York or Hawaii. After they retired and were living in a home, customers would pick up pie and take it to them."
The sisters were also hugely popular within the gay community.
"When I first expanded the diner's hours from weekdays and opened on Saturdays, it wasn't the 'Design District' back then, it was an industrial area, and there was no one living down there," Nancy says. "So a lot of our weekend customers came from the Oak Lawn area. They've been such a longtime group of loyal customers. The gay community built our weekend business."
One group gave Natalie a big party at Maggiano's for her 70th birthday, and Nancy recalls the arrangements as being totally over the top.
"But Barbara and Natalie were just as flamboyant," she says. "Silk and sequins were a part of their everyday wardrobe. They were regulars at NorthPark Center. I remember shopping in Dillard's purse department, and when I mentioned Mama's Daughter's Diner, the clerk said, 'Oh, you must know Barbara and Natalie.'"
Barbara's maiden name was Woodley. At one time, she was married to Terry Sivils, whose parents founded Sivils Drive-In, a car-hop restaurant from the '40s and '50s (documented on Flashback Dallas).
"Barbara and Natalie were from a small town in East Texas called Elysian Fields, and while they did have family land and oil wells, you didn't always believe their stories, and I say that in the most endearing way," Nancy says. "It has always been my opinion that they probably didn't have to work, but they wanted to work. If anyone were born to do that job, it was those two sisters."
After Natalie had a stroke, sometime in 2010, she'd come to Mama's on Mondays and Tuesdays, to sit in Barbara's station from 10 am to 3 pm and have lunch all day. People would come in specifically on those days to listen to the sisters' tales. Not long after, Barbara had cataract surgery and became more sensitive to bright light. She started wearing big, chunky-framed sunglasses.
"She never took them off," Nancy says. "After her surgery, the whole staff wore sunglasses at the diner as a show of support. Of course hers had big rhinestones."
In the last few years, as Barbara began to fail, they trimmed back her hours to two days a week. Nancy and her assistant Maria Brandt found the sisters an assisted living facility where they could stay. "We all pitched in and got them furniture," Nancy says.
"We knew it was time to find them a safe place, but they were so mad at me," she says. "Barbara was having trouble walking, but she had that strong work ethic and never wanted to let anyone know she was frail."
In their heyday, they dished out a certain kind of sass you rarely see.
"It's that Flo attitude from Mel's Diner, which you can get away with when you've been around the block for 35 years," Nancy says.
Barbara requested no service, but customers are welcome to email memories to email@example.com or to 2014 Irving Blvd., Dallas 75207.