Uptown: 6078 Laurel
The golden age of the New Orleans neighborhood restaurant began with the end of Prohibition in the early 1930s and ended with the mass flight to the suburbs of the early 1960s. During those years New Orleans proper reached its greatest population. A minority of Orleanians owned automobiles; very few families owned more than one. It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that televisions were common in homes, and those sets had small screens, black-and-white imagery, and frequent technical problems.
Under those conditions, people went to the neighborhood “Bar & Rest” (as they were often called in their Yellow Pages listings) to get out of the house, meet friends, have a drink, and grab an uncomplicated but good supper.
For most people living in the established neighborhoods, such places were no more than a few blocks away. There were enough of them that many patrons had a choice of destinations. In the Treme neighborhood where I grew up, three such bar & rests were within three blocks of our house.
Lee’s Bar on St. Claude between Ursulines and Gov. Nicholls became my stereotype of such places. I’m sure I was brought there by my father or uncles only occasionally. It was more bar than rest, more for adult conversation than a family spot. But I was in there often enough, alternately bored and fascinated. (The latter mainly by the television set, which Lee’s had before our house did.)
Lee’s salient quality was that everybody in there was friend to everybody else. Of course they were. They all lived close by. And if a person not known to Lee (the bartender) or his regulars entered, he was regarded with suspicion.
The first of the two times I ate at Norby’s, this impression of Lee’s Bar returned to my mind immediately. I didn’t get an unwelcome feeling, but I didn’t get a smile, either. In those days (the 1960s), servers were nowhere near as chummy as they are now. They certainly would not have asked, “Is this your first time dining with us?” They kept their distance, and waited for you to prove yourself as a Norby’s kind of person.
Which was not difficult. An easy in–at least at a certain time of year–was to bring up the Tulane versus LSU football game. In Norby’s heyday, The Green Wave rarely won, but at least it was in the game. The regulars were split about equally in their loyalties. After the game, a sort of a parade took place in which the winning side was pushed around in wheelbarrows by the losing contingent. Then everybody returned to Norby’s for beer and seafood and roast beef poor boys.
This ritual needed no publicity from the media to become a celebrated neighborhood tradition. It all ran on the energy generated by Norby’s.
Norbert Keanan and his wife Shirley opened Norby’s in 1963, near the end of the golden age. It had most of the characteristics of the genre: located on the corner of a back street and another back street, with Norby behind the bar and Shirley in the kitchen. The menu was much longer than you’d expect. I think Shirley cooked all that by refraining from throwing out perfectly good food at the end of the evening, if it could be served edibly the next day. She made up for that with very large portions, designed for people who had actually put in a day’s work.
The building had a longer history. At least one previous bar & rest had been in the location, with a grocery store before that. Norby’s took over an existing clientele when it opened. Since neighborhood restaurants were beginning to dwindle, it attracted people who cam by automobile as well as on foot.
By the 1970s, Norby’s was popular among a younger clientele as a genuine relic of local culture. The weekly newspaper Figaro and particularly its cartoonist Bunny Matthews lionized Norby’s and places like it, preventing them from vanishing from the scene.
On the other hand, Norby’s never got much attention from the mainstream press. Richard Collin–who in his secret identity as The Underground Gourmet specialized in finding such places–never reviewed Norby’s either in his States-Item column or any of his three books. I didn’t review it, either–probably because I was writing for Figaro, where Bunny owned the Norby’s beat.
Norby’s followed in the footsteps of its block-away neighbor Clancy’s–a remnant of the golden age bar & rest itself, gentrified in 1983 into one of the first gourmet Creole bistros. In 2004 Norby’s became Nardo’s Trattoria, with Clancy’s original chef Chris Canan in the kitchen. By 2008 it became the excellent French-Creole bistro Patois, which it remains today.
Norby himself passed away shortly before Katrina. His restaurant and the community that gravitated to it are gone. But you can get an idea of what it must have been like. Patois kept Norby’s layout of six tables in the front with a small bar and four more tables on the other side of the bar’s back wall. The space is still there with new paint, a more somber color scheme, and a a menu that Norby and his customers would find no more puzzling if it were written in Urdu.