Joseph A. Williamson Jr., 83, of Blue Bell, a proprietor of the Williamson Restaurants in the Philadelphia area and in Florida, died Tuesday, July 30, of prostate cancer at Einstein Medical Center Montgomery.
Mr. Williamson was one of 10 children born to Emma E. Deamer and Joseph A. Williamson Sr. in Newportville, Pa. He graduated from a preparatory school in Rhode Island and afterward dedicated his life to running the family business with his brothers Harry, James, Richard, and Edward.
“Joe, along with his brothers, carried the traditions of commitment and service to family, friends, customers, and to hard work,” said his son, Joe Williamson 3d.
The business was begun by entrepreneur Joseph A. Williamson Sr., who in 1943 left the Crystal Tea Room at Wanamaker’s department store, where he was a busboy, and with almost every cent he had saved, opened the first Williamson Restaurant in Jenkintown.
A second restaurant opened in Penn Valley in 1947, according to a 2011 history posted on mainlinemedianews.com. In 1957, it moved to the Presidential in Bala Cynwyd.
During the 1950s, the restaurants offered special children’s menus, with the Simple Simon dinner for $1, and the Miss Muffet dinner for 75 cents. Among the offerings were roast turkey, baked ham, roast beef or calf’s liver, served with green peas, fresh California carrots, and whipped potatoes.
In 1961, another Williamson Restaurant opened atop the G.S.B. Building on Belmont Avenue in Lower Merion. Diners sitting 12 floors up could watch the sun set against the Philadelphia skyline as they ate chicken salad with a side order of fried oysters, or Maryland chicken with yellow gravy. There were linen tablecloths and napkins, and waitresses in dark uniforms with white aprons.
“It was a fine-dining experience, but without any form of pretense,” his son said.
Mary Beth McAndrews, who worked for Mr. Williamson as a teenager, remembered him as a good boss.
“I have many fond memories. It was a great learning experience," she wrote in an online condolence book. "They taught me a great deal.”
In 1972, Mr. Williamson and his wife, Noreen, moved south to open a restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Like the others, it featured American food designed to taste like a home-cooked meal.
While Mr. Williamson was gone in 1978, the company opened a Horsham banquet facility with seating for 1,000. In 1982, Mr. Williamson and his family returned to the Philadelphia area to open Williamson’s Catering in Willow Grove.
Williamson’s catered many grand functions and galas, including dinners for Pope John Paul II during his visit to Philadelphia in 1979, and for Pope Francis in 2015.
“Not only were dignitaries served,” his son said. “Joe served everyone. He had a way of appreciating the person who sat before him or beside him. He was the epitome of a gracious host.”
Only the Williamson Restaurant in the G.S.B. Building made it into this millennium. It closed in 2004. The Horsham banquet center closed in 2017. Williamson’s Catering is still in operation.
Besides the restaurant business, Mr. Williamson’s passion was family. When his son was on the crew team in high school, Mr. Williamson would arrive at meets with “enough hot chocolate to keep the whole team warm, and enough food to fuel us,” his son said.
“Joe was a wonderful husband, dad, grandfather, and friend,” Arlene and Mike O’Hara, who were Mr. Williamson’s neighbors, wrote online. “He was bigger than life itself; a caring and generous individual without any of the fanfare.”
Mr. Williamson was a member of the Union League of Philadelphia, and of country clubs in Whitemarsh and Naples Lakes, Fla.
In addition to his wife and son, he is survived by a grandson.; two brothers, two sisters; and many nieces and nephews.
A viewing starting at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 6, will be followed by an 11 a.m. Mass of Christian Burial at Epiphany of Our Lord Church, 3050 Walton Rd., Plymouth Meeting. Burial is private.