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People of NKY: Shelly DeFelice-Nelson carries on her father’s legacy, at Dee Felice Cafe in Mainstrasse

By Ginger Dawson
Special to NKyTribune

I’m am sure many of you are familiar with the Dee Felice Cafe in Covington’s Mainstrasse Village, and if you have not spent an evening there, you had better do it.

Dee’s is one of Covington’s longest-running restaurants, having opened its doors on March 9, 1984.

Dee Felice, a local Jazz drummer with a national reputation (believe me, he COOKED!) was always coming up with new business ideas to supplement the musician’s lifestyle.  His daughter Shelly was always aware of these schemes, whether they turned into anything or not. 

So, it came as no surprise when he started talking about opening a restaurant in a former pharmacy in Covington — of all places! He had signed a lease and was beginning the planning and renovation of the space. It would feature live music and cajun/creole food.

Shelly DeFelice-Nelson and Clara (Photos by Ginger Dawson)

Dee had a love affair with this space. It was in its original 19th-century glory; a large space with marble floors, lots of light and a gorgeous pressed tin ceiling that he meticulously painted himself. It was this ceiling that almost prevented the Dee Felice Cafe from happening.

Shelly realized that she had better get over there and see what Dad was up to. He needed her help. He REALLY needed her help.

One day, when the restaurant was getting near the point that it would be opening, the building inspector visited. He informed Dee that he was going to have to put a sprinkler system over that gorgeous, custom-painted pressed tin ceiling.  Dee, possessor of an artistic temperament, naturally threw a fit.  

He informed the building inspector that he would not, in no uncertain terms, do that, and furthermore — HE WAS GOING TO JUST WALK AWAY FROM THE WHOLE MESS! THE HELL WITH IT!

Shelly was mortified. She had quit her job and was ready to open the cafe. She called the building inspector and convinced him to come back and talk about it again, without Dee’s presence.

Cooler heads prevailed, an alternative plan was agreed to, the ceiling was saved and Shelly DeFelice-Nelson survived her first baptism as general manager of the Dee Felice Cafe.

Shelly and Patrick

A short while later, her father hired a cook — Patrick, away from a friend of his who also owned a restaurant. The pretense was that after this cook was trained at Dee’s, he would return. This never happened.

Patrick Nelson and Shelly hit it off. They married in 1995. Dee had redeemed himself over the ceiling debacle and had found Shelly a husband.  

Sadly, in the interim between Shelly and Patrick meeting and ultimately marrying, Dee passed from cancer in 1991.

Patrick and Shelly have worked together ever since. Shelly likes the fact that they share not only personal lives but also their professional lives. She credits Patrick with a lot of the success of the restaurant.

In fact, she credits everyone who works with her for its success. 

Actually, it is really this generosity of spirit and her management style that has made it a success. She loves to work the front door and always knows what is going on. She orchestrates the evenings in a way that provides an optimum experience for diners and employees both.

When asked for one lesson she had learned in life, she responded that she has learned to always be nice, even when stress and difficult customers and employees make it a challenge. Believe me, this is the statement of a true professional.

After living in Covington for awhile, Patrick and Shelly moved to Bellevue in 1989.  They have two cats, Clara and Motz. They love the small town atmosphere and central location.

A new hobby that Shelly has been pursuing is playing the drums. She had always wanted to, but there was a slight intimidation factor. The set of drums that she could have easily played were at the restaurant and had belonged to her father.  Later, they were under the exacting care of the late, great John Von Ohlon, legendary Jazz drummer and a contemporary of Dee’s.

Shelly cookin’ on the practice kit.

John was very specific about no one moving that kit or cleaning it. There was even a sign on it stating, “DON’T CLEAN THE DRUMS”. So, having been a drummer’s daughter, Shelly understood this particularity and just stayed away from it.  

But, a new band was engaged that did not have a drummer. This meant that the drums had to be moved out of the way each time that they performed. Shelly would move the drums and then put them back. Each time she would ask John if the drums were situated correctly. He was always surprised that they had been moved at all.

This emboldened her to not resist an urge. She just wanted to sit down at those drums and play something! She did, and her music career began.

She has been taking online drumming classes and has a practice kit at home. She practices all of the time and particularly enjoys her father’s kit at the restaurant.

The Dee Felice Cafe is a very family-oriented business. In addition to Patrick, Shelly works with her mother, Shirley, a few days a week. Sister Jennifer works there, and another sister, Cindy, and nephews, Blake and Gabe, have as well.  Aunt Shelly also dotes on her niece, Sophia.

Actually, Shelly considers everyone at the Cafe to be one big family. It is apparent that this sentiment is returned as a lot of the staff have been there for many years.  Long-time customers and former employees also feel as if they are returning to the fold with just a visit for dinner. 

Shelly is particularly proud of the fact that she has kept her father’s vision and idea going. She said he would be very pleased with the fact that she had kept that element of pride and integrity that was so important to him and had shared it with others.

One of Shelly’s favorite quotes, paraphrased from Hans Christian Andersen:  “Enjoy your life while you can, you’re going to be dead a long time.”

It’s good advice and I think she definitely heeds it.

Ginger Dawson will be writing about the People of NKY — the neighbors you need to know and people you need to meet and understand. The feature will appear periodically at the NKyTribune. If you have ideas for subjects, please share them with Ginger at ginger@fuse.net.

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  1. Bonnie says:

    Great article!!! Only thing missing is a pic of Dee?

  2. Linda Howell says:

    Love Dee Felice Cafe, they have the best shrimp and grits. The staff is so friendly, I remember one server, in particular, Carol. She was so attentive and sweet. A really good server that she stands out in my mind. This article reminded me how long it has been. I have to get back there, I miss it!

  3. Peggy says:

    De Felice is a gem of a place and I have been there many,many times and the food is always wonderful! Shelly takes great pride in the restaurant and is a very kind, nice gracious hostess she surely makes you feel at home!! What a lovely article highlighting her accomplishment s and dedication her dad De would be so proud!!

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