Extinct Restaurants

Buck Forty-Nine Pancake and Steak House
Four locations:
212 Bourbon Street, across from Galatoire’s
Airline Highway in front of Crescent Airline Shopping Center
South Carrollton Avenue at Maple
West Bank Expressway at Stumpf Blvd.

“Never name a restaurant after a price!” said Joe Riccobono, a man I never met.

His son Vincent quoted the line. Vincent owns the Peppermill, the Metairie restaurant opened by his mother in 1975. Josie Riccobono wanted to have a restaurant that was more feminine and stylish than her husband’s Buck Forty-Nines. It was the sixth restaurant in a local chain that included four Buck Forty-Nines, plus Rick’s Pancake House on Canal Street.

The Peppermill is still thriving. But the Buck Forty-Nine’s last stand–the West Bank location–closed around the time the century did.

Its name makes the Buck Forty-Nine sound like the last place someone interested in eating well would go. Cheap steaks in stark, kitschy, western-themed dining rooms? They really did have a steak that sold for $1.49, as late as the mid-Sixties. It was a sirloin (probably top sirloin, not a strip), and it came with fries and a salad for that price. It was not for seekers of a great steak.

Nor, really, were the other steaks on the menu. They weren’t terrible, but I never heard anyone call them the best in town. With steakhouses like Chris and the Crescent City, we knew better. The Buck Forty-Nine’s steaks were about price. Among the many jokey lines sprinkled on its menu was this quotation from Joe Riccobono: “People ask how we can serve such great steaks for such a low price. Frankly, I have an uncle who is a cattle rustler.”

But the Buck Forty-Nine kitchen went far beyond cheap steaks. They offered the full range of casual New Orleans eating: as much seafood as a seafood house, red beans and other favorite local lunch specials, poor boy sandwiches, bread pudding and caramel custard. They served the distinctive “cap bread,” a crusty loaf that was about the size and shape of a first baseman’s glove, a distinctly local variety of bread served only in ancient places like Arnaud’s and Tujague’s.

The seafood, on the other hand, was very good. They fried catfish especially well, and served trout amandine with the brown New Orleans-style meuniere sauce that the Peppermill still uses. The stuffed crab was first-rate, and the shrimp remoulade was beyond reproach. The daily specials were as good as could be found anywhere else in town at that price.

Particularly at the location on South Carrollton, the Buck Forty-Nine functioned as a neighborhood restaurant. Why not? Everybody there was local, the food was Creole, and only the cowboy decor differentiated it from any other big locals hangout. Some people were so loyal to the place that they ate three meals a day there, seven days a week.

Three? Yes, they had breakfast. That was good, too. In its prime, they had a list of pancakes that ran to dozens of varieties, and served them with a rack of six differently-flavored syrups. And omelettes and fancy poached eggs with hollandaise and grits and sausage and bacon and lost bread.

As restaurants like the Buck Forty-Nine went out of vogue east of the Mississippi (perhaps this is why the Gretna location managed to hang on), the Carrollton restaurant evolved (with much the same menu) into the Riverbend. That was a classic fern restaurant of the 1970s. It was wildly popular as a slightly upscale, slightly dressed-up neighborhood hangout for over a decade. Then it went out of vogue in its turn, and the location ceased to be a restaurant.

Maybe that’s another lesson that Joe Riccobono learned. If you go along with restaurant vogues, if you’re not careful they can leave you behind. (The Peppermill, too, has experienced this.)

I have fond personal memories of the Buck Forty-Nine. As the child of parents who never ate in restaurants, it was the place where I first discovered the pleasures of dining out. Working in my late teens at the Time Saver on Carrollton and Oak, I’d come in early so I could take a full hour off for dinner at the Buck Forty-Nine a few blocks away.

I ate an unvarying menu of onion soup, salad with the unique, garlicky vinaigrette, a chopped sirloin steak with a baked potato and the works, and a caramel custard. And learned how this is better than that, how to get the most out of a menu, how to get the service staff to work on your behalf, and a few other skills. The Buck Forty-Nine was one of the first restaurants I reviewed when I started writing about these matters. The food was just good and local enough to make it worth talking about. Even now, after it’s long gone.

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  1. Ray LeBlanc on June 13, 2016

    Does anyone have a picture of the Gretna Buck Forty Nine?