By: Jim Hannaford

There’s often a lively crowd at Manci’s Antique Club, but now they have one more reason to raise a glass and smile—and it’s a big one. The building that houses the popular bar and restaurant has reached the century mark.

Standing at the intersection of Main Street and Belrose Avenue, the former service station has literally been a cornerstone of the community for a hundred years. 

“We’re talking about a building that is actually older than the city of Daphne,” Mayor Robin LeJeune said at a recent ceremony commemorating the milestone. “How cool is that? We won't celebrate the city’s 100 years until 2027.”

But it’s more than just an old building. In some ways, Manci’s has long been—and continues to be—the beating heart of downtown Daphne. Almost everyone on the Eastern Shore seems to have a warm feeling for it. For that, we can thank three generations of what is one of Daphne’s earliest and most prominent families along with the trio of current co-owners who are respectfully following in their footsteps.

According to the generally accepted historical record, Italian immigrants, Frank Manci and Angelo Trione, built the brick-and-concrete structure in 1924 on a wooden produce warehouse site. Once Prohibition was lifted in 1933, a small bar serving beer was added inside.

The enterprising Frank Manci, who was one of the original colonists who founded Daphne, was also a successful farmer who owned both the cotton gin and the sawmill. He ran this popular corner business until 1947 before passing it down to his son. Arthur “Buster” Manci Sr. introduced hard liquor in 1967 and he and his wife, Avis (whose nickname was “Tootsie”) are the ones who filled the place with antiques and collectibles. 

Buster Manci, who was also a banker and was mayor of Daphne from 1951-64, died in 1984. His son Alex took over, and it was during his time as owner and operator that he and his wife, Gwen, first started serving food. They ran Manci’s for the better part of three decades until he abruptly shut it down in the fall of 2014 after deciding it was time to retire. 

The place went dark for a few months until seasoned restaurateurs Harry Johnson and John Thompson stepped in, bringing in Garrett DeLuca as a partner a couple of years later. Johnson had a proven track record for reviving historic establishments, including the famous Bluegill Restaurant on the Causeway, and so did Thompson as longtime owner of Callaghan’s Irish Social Club in Mobile.

Mayor LeJeune read and presented a proclamation to the owners at the event on April 19 that also included a ceremonial ribbon-cutting out front. He called the building a “treasured Daphne establishment” and talked briefly about the significance of having such a vital link to the past, “especially in these times of unprecedented growth.”

As guests at the event cheerfully swapped stories, it was evident that Manci’s has bridged the decades for many in very meaningful ways. 

Kicking off the presentation, Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce President Casey Williams joked that she was glad the walls couldn’t talk, and much of the crowd laughed in agreement. 

“There’s a feeling of permanence here. It’s wonderful that in this world where everything constantly goes so very fast, this is still here for us and our community,” Williams said. “We’re blessed,” she continued, and thanked the three current owners: “I’m very grateful to Harry and J.T. and Garrett for keeping this spirit of community alive in this place.”

Manci’s does seem special, even comforting, as soon as you enter. Its homey feel of familiarity comes in part from its quirky and interesting décor. A vast collection of whiskey decanters shares space with curiosities like antique firearms, a huge array of hotel keys from around the world, and even one of the original gas pumps from just outside the front door. On the walls are scores of framed photos preserving many aspects of Daphne’s past, including black-and-white blowups of skiffs full of flounder from historic jubilees.

It’s not as cluttered as it once was, but there is still plenty to catch your eye almost everywhere you look. 

“We didn’t change it very much, but we did do a lot of cleaning,” says co-owner Harry Johnson. “Buster Manci and his wife, Tootsie, traveled a lot and collected antiques, and people also would bring in stuff and they would buy it. They collected a ton of stuff over the years, and when we took over nine years ago, we held a public auction before we opened and sold a lot of what was in the  display cases because we needed room for tables, chairs, booths, and entertainment.”

But even if you’re not history-minded or don’t tend to take in the scenery, Manci’s Antique Club offers excellent food, a broadly varied selection of beer, wine, and cocktails (including their legendary Bloody Mary) as well as a regular lineup of mostly local live music. The new owners added an adjoining section, Buster’s Brick Oven, which serves up pizzas, wine, and spirits and is named in tribute to the earlier owner.

A hundred years down the road, Manci’s has evolved while retaining its own unique character. It’s the kind of place that continues to attract lots of locals, many of them also with deep roots in Daphne, and instantly charms the out-of-towners who are fortunate enough to wander in. 

Johnson said he and his partners cherish being part of the ongoing Manci’s legacy and always want to honor the Manci family members who laid the foundation for them. In fact, they have already taken steps to preserve the historical integrity of the building and will continue to do so.

Just to the south of this Main Street mainstay, a historical marker graces the sidewalk in front of what used to be Trione’s Store, the community’s first grocery, which opened for business in 1917. That building at one time also was the bus depot and post office and more recently was the location of two side-by-side restaurants, Guido’s and Cousin Vinny’s. Johnson says an effort is underway to get official historical recognition for the Manci’s building from the Alabama Historical Commission, which is part of the state Historic Preservation Office.

May 8, 2024
Dive Bars & Music

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