West End Park.
West End Park is a manmade rectangle of land on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, at the western end of the Lake Pontchartrain waterfront in New Orleans. For 170 years, beginning in the prosperous 1830s, it was a popular getaway for people living in and around New Orleans.
Most would arrive by boat. The docks at West End were the busiest anywhere along the lakeshore. Later, people would come by rail, and much later by automobile. Roads through the wetlands separating the city from West End were not built until the 1920s, and then only with great difficulty.
People went to West End for a variety of pleasures, ranging from the basic ones of swimming, fishing, and lying around on the waterfront to the enjoyment of the restaurants, bars, and music clubs. Bawdier activities were available for those looking for them.
West End became as much a part of New Orleans culture as any other part of the city. Louis Armstrong and Earl “Fatha” Hines recognized that with their immortal 1928 recording “West End Blues”—one of the first major jazz hits.
The archetype of the West End restaurant was Bruning’s. It opened in 1859, and persisted under the same family’s ownership all the way to August 29, 2005—the day Hurricane Katrina put an end to all the few remaining West End Park restaurants. It’s unlikely that any restaurant will ever open there again.
In the age that people can still remember, Bruning’s was timeless and definitive. The menu offered everything that a West End Park meal would be expected to include, and almost nothing else. Boiled and fried seafood, stuffed everything, gumbo, whole fried or broiled flounder, and fried chicken—that about covered it.
You entered Bruning’s through a room that could have been used to shoot a movie set in the Old West. An enormous old bar whose varnish had darkened to nearly black over the years ran along the right-hand wall. (It was salvaged after the storm, and is now in the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.) A few antique arcade machines stood here and there. It was hard to tell whether they worked or not.
That led into the dining room, whose many large windows left no doubt that you were at the farthest western extreme of New Orleans. (In fact, the patch of water over which Bruning’s stood on stilts was actually in Jefferson Parish.) To the south was the outflowing end of the 17th Street Canal, which carried water from the world’s largest drainage pumping station to the lake. A footbridge crossed the canal for those wanting to take a walk to Bucktown after dinner. To the west, on a sort of peninsula, was a Victorian house that looked out of place until you found out that it was where the third-generation owner of Bruning’s lived. (The site was so scenic that it was a main shooting site for the 1990s movie The Big Easy.
The windows on the north-facing side of Bruning’s gave a clear view into the lake itself, its khaki-colored water stretching to the horizon, as did the Causeway. It was the perfect West End dining environment.
The dining room—always full—held a West End oddity. Hanging on an interior wall was an old wash basin, with a towel rack above it. It looked as if it had been placed on the wrong side of a bathroom wall. It was there for you to wash up before and after you plowed through a pile of boiled crabs, shrimp, or crawfish. A lot of seafood restaurants had such a fixture.
Bruning’s style of cooking was from another time. The gumbo recipe showed no evidence of the trend toward a very thick broth. It was light but very flavorful. One of the most distinctive entrees was the “crab chop.” It was crabmeat dressing made into the shape (roughly) of a pork chop, and fried.
But without a doubt the signature dish at Bruning’s was its whole flounder–a big one, the size referred to in the commercial fishing trade as a “doormat.” It came to the table intact–head, tail, skin, bones, everything was there. You could have it fried or broiled, stuffed or not. Bruning’s version of this dish, even years after its demise, is still the standard by which all other whole flounders are measured.
Usually, restaurants over a century old take on airs about themselves, become crotchety, and raise their prices a lot. None of that was ever true of Bruning’s, which under the management of fifth-generation owner Sam Urrate was easygoing and inexpensive.
Bruning’s was a happy family place for a lot of people. How many became known after Hurricane Georges in 1998. Although Bruning’s survived many previous hurricanes, this one seemed to have its number. It filled Lake Pontchartrain with water eight to ten feet higher than normal. The winds blew waves high enough to wash with great upward force beneath Bruning’s and did terrible damage to the old building. It would never serve again.
Sam Urrate moved the restaurant to a building he owned on the land in front of Bruning’s, and set about fixing the old place. But the insurance industry said that this was flood damage, not wind damage. But how does a building that’s always standing in water get flood insurance? Answer: It can’t. The money never came. Bruning’s original building would never be repaired. The best they could do was to remove the historic bar, the arcade machines, and some other things.
Seven years later, Katrina’s waves were twice as high as Georges’s. They washed over West End Park and left no building standing. Not even the pilings that once supported all these restaurants remained. Sam Urrate’s grandmother’s Victorian house was gone, too.
A couple of months after Katrina, Sam told me that he wanted to reopen Bruning’s, either at West End or elsewhere. That was the last I heard from him. You can’t really blame him. But we can hope Bruning’s returns someday, can’t we?