“Dirty” Dave Wilson wasn’t there to serve the legendary pizzas with cashews and the famous Jake Sandwich to hungry patrons Tuesday. But at Dirty Dave’s Pizza Parlor at 3939 Martin Way E., there were signs of him everywhere.
He was there on yellowed newspaper pages and Victorian-style black-and-white portraits, in cartoons and embroidered on the shirts of employees. And he was alive and well in the memories of the family, employees and patrons he loved.
“Dave is family to me,” said Jerry Farmer of KRXY-FM radio, a longtime family friend who was Wilson’s first employee when his Lacey restaurant opened in 1972. “He was a father figure, a brother figure, a mentor and, most of all, a very, very dear friend, and he will very definitely be missed.”
Wilson, 75, died of a heart attack Friday at his home. But the legend lives on for one of South Sound’s longest-serving and larger-than-life restaurant owners.
Standing 6-foot-4, Wilson had a big grin and an infectious laugh, and once had shaggy red hair and a beard. He wore gold jewelry around his neck and drove nice cars, but quietly gave money to charity.
“He created the legend of himself unconsciously,” Farmer said. He “always had a great sense of humor, but not the least bit mean-spirited.”
Wilson had sort of retired, but was regularly at the restaurant, which he had passed on to his children and grandchildren. On any given day, you might find his kids Greg, Tom or Toni there. His grandson Rick Nelsen runs Ricardo’s Steakhouse in Lacey but was raised at Dirty Dave’s.
Wilson’s pizza restaurant days date back to Redlands, Calif., where he ran a place called Gay ’90s Pizza Parlor out of an old chicken shack, Farmer said. After the Wilson family home in Redlands burned down, Dave Wilson moved the family to Vernon, B.C. Farmer, who lived in Redlands, met the Wilsons when he dated a woman who was the governess for the Wilson children.
That relationship didn’t last, but Farmer’s friendship with Wilson did for the rest of his life. Wilson had trouble getting a business up and running in Canada, Farmer said, so he left for greener pastures in Lacey, where he had family.
Once there, Wilson and Farmer, his only employee, started up the Gay ’90s Pizza Parlor in 1972 at the site of the old Lacey Burger Bar on Pacific Avenue. Gay ’90s had a Victorian theme that recalled the heady 1890s, a time of prosperity. Wilson’s wife of 55 years, Lorna, loved Victorian items, and the family ran with the theme, including an old piano.
Wilson’s daughter Toni said her mother was the one who let Dirty Dave be Dirty Dave. She kept the books and kept the business running.
The family moved the flagship pizza parlor to Martin Way in 1979. The rest is history. And there is a lot of that history on the walls.
Wilson encouraged patrons to tack their own memorabilia on the walls, from pop culture posters to beer signs, family photographs to old vanity license plates. Many chain restaurants pull bric-a-brac from warehouses to create such an atmosphere; at Dirty Dave’s, it happened organically.
The local restaurant evolved to the current moniker, Dirty Dave’s, because that’s what everybody called it. How did Wilson get the nickname?
“He had a devastating sense of humor,” Farmer said. “On the one hand, every now and then it would get a little blue.” On the other, Wilson was a mean poker player. His poker comrades called him a “dirty, underhanded poker player.”
The nickname hasn’t changed, nor has the pizza parlor, except the prices have risen with inflation. But the menu largely hasn’t changed. There’s still the same Gay ’90s Special — a pizza with cashews that, legend has it, started when a drunk man asked to throw some bar nuts on a pizza. You also can still order the Jake sandwich, which has ham, salami and pepperoni.
“You can come here and get the same spaghetti and meat sauce that you got 30 years ago,” Nelsen said.
To Wilson’s children, who remember getting their allowance by checking for loose change under the booths, he was Dad.
Toni remembers starting work when she was 12, riding her 10-speed bike to the pizza parlor. “If you were adept, he gave you the opportunity,” she said. She’d learn to make her own food first before cooking for others.
Greg remembers starting work at 13 at the Mexican restaurant Wilson owned at the time, Los Hermanos. At one time, Wilson also owned another Dirty Dave’s location on the west side.
Dirty Dave passed his work ethic down to his grandchildren too. Nelsen remembers making his first tip at age 5 or 6. “A customer gave me two bucks,” he said. But his grandfather took the money and put it in the tip jar. “He goes, ‘There’s a lot of other people that made that happen,’” Nelsen said.
To the Thurston County Food Bank, Wilson was a major benefactor. Nelsen said Wilson would go to the local Cash & Carry store and buy about $800 worth of groceries per week for the organization.
Greg Wilson called him the busiest unemployed person he had ever met.
“I’m just really going to miss him,” he said.
Matt Batcheldor: 360-704-6869 email@example.com @MattBatcheldor