Then & Now: Donna Helen Crisp

Irregardless has been around for 43 years and has seen many people coming and going, including the wait staff and cooks. To celebrate the years and the people who have helped make the restaurant what it is today, our staff blogger Alix V. has created a Then & Now Blog Series – capturing the special memories of previous employees when they worked at the cafe back then – and what they have been up to now.  Let’s catch up with Donna Helen Crisp!

In Donna’s own words: 

“Only two places continue to show up in my dreams year after year:  the west Raleigh home where I grew up, and where my mother lived until her death in 2008, and the Irregardless Café, where I worked for more than a decade.  

Before the early 1980’s, I did not visit Irregardless and I did not know Arthur and the Gordons.  After graduating from law school in 1976, I moved to Los Angeles to perform as a singer-songwriter and pianist.  I returned to Raleigh in 1980.

Around 1982, I met with Arthur to talk about performing at the restaurant.  I auditioned for him, adding that I would also like to work there. I cannot recall if I performed before or after I began waitressing there.  I do remember that months after meeting Arthur, late one afternoon, he called and asked if I still wanted to work there. Yes, I said. Could I be there in half an hour, he asked?  Yes, I said. Thus, began a long love affair with the most interesting restaurant I have ever known.

Around 1990, I went back to school and spent seven years earning two nursing degrees from UNC Chapel Hill.  Throughout this time, I continued to work at Irregardless. After working lunches in the beginning, eventually I worked only at night.  

In later years, I worked as the evening dining room manager and cashier.  I took the money bags to the bank on my way home late at night, except for the night during the NC State Fair when a guy quickly dashed through the front door and stole the money right out of my hands.

I was in love with the restaurant the whole time I worked there.  I used to tell folks that eating there was like going to a dear friend’s home for a delicious home-cooked meal, except without the wine bar and live music.

I remember very busy evenings, especially on Saturday nights, when people lined up down the street and were happy to wait until they could be seated in their favorite restaurant.  I remember large coolers in the kitchen because the refrigerators were not big enough to hold all the beverages that needed to be cold. I remember cooks ruling the kitchen, sometimes playing awful music with wicked pleasure to torture the rest of us.  I remember customers being joyful and friendly.

Arthur was ahead of his time.  I had enormous respect for his dedication and energy.  He created a one-of-a kind place on our planet that offered outstanding food, music, wine, and service to an eclectic group of people.  I went to work feeling proud of being a part of the restaurant, nourished by a place that gave so much happiness to people.

In June of 1985, I met with Arthur to plead the case that Irregardless should be smoke-free.  In those days, people could smoke almost anywhere. You could not eat in any restaurant without encountering cigarette smoke.  It was not until 1988 that US airlines began to prohibit smoking. It took much longer for restaurants.

I ask Arthur to please make Irregardless non-smoking. I told him all the reasons it was the right thing to do.  He said he would think about it. A week later, he decided there would be no more smoking in the restaurant. I was thrilled and a little surprised.  Arthur was brave to risk hurting his business.

It turned out that the rare scoundrels who drank and smoked stopped coming to Irregardless.  Contentious conversations about smoking no longer occurred. New people joined the regulars because they wanted a smoke-free dining experience.  

Irregardless was the first official restaurant in the state to become smoke-free.  Also, around this time, I believe Irregardless became the first acknowledged wine-bar restaurant in North Carolina.  Arthur was and still is a risk-taker, as well as an excellent business man and innovator.

There are so many stories I could share, so I will just pick two of my favorites.  One cold and drizzly night, two people showed up for dinner. Each was meeting someone who never arrived.  Leslie was meeting her girlfriend and Tom was meeting a blind date. I suggested they sit together, which they did.  Apparently, as they later told me, I kidded that if they got married they should name their first child after me! They married in 1998 and had two sons, neither of which was named Donna.

Another favorite story was the night I visited the Shearon Harris nuclear power plant with a man I later married.  He and I worked at the restaurant and had gotten to know a woman who worked in marketing for the power company that was building the plant, still under construction.  The nuclear reactor core was not yet in place. She offered to give us a tour. We met her one hot summer evening, under a sky streaked with color from the setting sun.

In those days – and for many years – I was a “romantic” –  a person characterized by an idealized view of reality. I took beautiful colored heart stickers with me that evening and applied them throughout the construction site – including in the containment area where the nuclear core would eventually be situated.  Throughout the years, I occasionally wondered if any of those stickers were still there, near the rods placed to control the fission rate of uranium and plutonium. Somewhere, I have photographs of that evening.

I am certain that no one would now be allowed to visit inside a nuclear power plant under construction.  The world is very different – harsher, more troubled. Yet, Irregardless is still in business, still serving up delicious food and wonderful music to interesting and appreciative people.  

I still miss certain dishes, like spinach brioche and the empanadas with sun dried tomatoes and goat cheese.  I miss some of the desserts. My mother loved the chocolate silk pie. Whenever I would take her a piece, she would exclaim, “I could eat the entire pie!”  Once, I said, “Mother, that might kill you!” And she said, “Can you think of a better way to die!”

As time went by, I eventually worked less and less at the restaurant.  After completing my MSN in Psychiatric Nursing, I worked for a year to earn my Board Certification before moving to Asheville in late 1997, where I had long yearned to live.  I was there for eight years before coming back to Raleigh to help care for my mother.

In 2006, I became a professor in the school of nursing at Chapel Hill, where I worked until I moved again to Asheville, in 2012.  Back in the mountains, I finished a book I had been working on for eight years; it was published in late 2016.

Last summer, in 2017, I moved back to Raleigh for good.  I live with two Welsh Corgis, Nellie and Ava, and one rescue cat, Clooney.  I work in the dream job of my career, as a Psychiatric Clinical Nurse Specialist for WakeMed Health and Hospitals.  

Sometimes I visit Irregardless, solely in the role of customer.  I am always happy to see Dodge, Kim, Anya, and Arthur.”

Donna Helen Crisp

May 25, 2018