300 Monroe Street, Gretna.
The most unconventional way to enter the dining room of Berdou’s would have been to jump off the Mississippi River Bridge (the old one, the only one we had then) on the West Bank downslope. There it was, a few hundred feet straight down. I don’t think anybody tried it, but it was a good description of the location for non-West Bankers.
On the outside, Berdou’s looked like a neighborhood restaurant. The kind of place you’d go for a poor boy and a beer. Inside, it was a much more substantial restaurant. Ida Berdou presided over a dining room that maintained a strict dress code that surprised more than a few first-timers. Jeans–regardless of their expense–were forbidden, even for little kids.
Mrs. Berdou, who herself always seemed a bit overdressed, had a few other rules you needed to follow. She did not like late diners, and if you weren’t in the house by seven-thirty, you were just out of luck. She once told me that the extra butter the waiter had brought me at my request was too much cholesterol, and that I’d better watch it. (I was in my twenties at the time.)
Mrs. Berdou wasn’t being mean about all this. She just felt that she was running a civilized establishment, and she thought her customers would be better off if they stuck with her rules. Her husband George loved her for this, and chewed me out after I referred to her once on the radio as “the old lady at Berdou’s.”
George Berdou was the chef, and a great one. He worked in the kitchen at Galatoire’s for awhile before opening his own place. This is easy to believe, because the food at Berdou’s was from the same precinct of the Creole culinary world that Galatoire’s was.
Indeed, the food at Berdou’s was always surprising not only for its goodness but also for its ambitiousness. Its most famous specialty was pompano en papillote–pompano baked in a parchment bag, so complicated a preparation that not even Antoine’s makes it anymore. (The only place now offering the dish regularly is Borgne.)
Making this even more amazing was Berdou’s pricing. A review I wrote in 1977 shows pompano en papillote at all of four dollars. That’s a dinner price. A shrimp remoulade appetizer (a good one) was $1.50. Turtle soup or gumbo, a buck. Crabmeat Berdou, a great casserole with a satisfying tinge of garlic, was $4. Trout Marguery with a very well made sauce of shrimp and mushrooms, $4. Chicken Clemenceau, $3.50. Two broiled lamb chops (complete with those little paper things that looked like chef’s hats slipped over the bones) were $4.50. For two dollars more, they’d make the entree part of a four-course dinner.
The dining room wasn’t fancy, but it had all the elements for first-class dining: white tablecloths, silverware and decent china, the kind of wine list that old New Orleans restaurants had. (Also the funny little wine glasses, about the size of sherry glasses, with a knot in the stem. They had to be filled to the very top.)
In its prime in the 1960s and 1970s, a reservation was hard to come by at Berdou’s. Fortunately, they stayed open all afternoon, and those hours had food as good as at any other time. You might even catch one of the lunch specials. Mr. Berdou liked to field peas, for example, and featured them once a week.
Here’s a line in my 1977 review: “You wonder whether there will be a philanthropist who will jump in and change nothing should Mrs. Berdou ever decide to lay down her reservation book.” That proved to be Mr. Berdou, but even he was able to keep the place open only for a few more years after his beloved wife’s death. The neighborhood was in steep decline, and the decline of the oil business kicked the wind out of the West Bank economy. It hasn’t been open since, nor is there another restaurant here that even approximates what Berdou’s did for its customers.