Iler Pope’s Cafe Atchafalaya*
Uptown: 901 Louisiana Avenue
Dante By The River/Tea ‘n’ Tiques
Uptown: 723 Dante Street
These three rather different restaurants belong together in this recollection because of the unique woman who connects them. Iler Pope moved to New Orleans from the Mississippi Delta country in the late 1970s, bringing with her a classic Mississippi speech rhythm (the word “wine” came out of her mouth in three syllables) and a love of Southern cooking.
New Orleans might seem to be the perfect place for a restaurant serving Southern cooking. But what people eat in the Mississippi Delta and what people in New Orleans eat are almost as different Creole and Yankee cooking are.
“Rather Southern, slightly sophisticated” was the slogan of Cafe Atchafalaya. You’d go there not for the usual New Orleans crabmeat ravigote, but crabmeat West Indies, a classic dish from the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Not for red beans and rice, but crowder peas and speckled butterbeans Iler bought from Rolling Fork, Mississippi. Not chicken Clemenceau, but chicken and dumplings. Fried chicken livers, too. Lots of greens and grits.
All the while, Iler sat in a corner of the dining room, smoking cigarettes and holding court with her friends. At times, she would jump up and correct a problem with a decisiveness so much in contrast with her genteel country-South persona that you’d be taken aback. Where did that tough old broad come from?
Iler’s Cafe Atchafalaya was the second, most famous and most distinctive of the four restaurants to bear that name on the corner of Louisiana and Laurel. The building was inherited from Petrossi’s Seafood Restaurant (about which more elsewhere on this site), and had been a restaurant since the 1920s. It was long and narrow with high ceilings, and a bit beat-up. But that suited the style perfectly, once Iler put up the right mix of paintings and plants.
In its heyday, Cafe Atchafalaya was exceedingly popular. After Iler left it behind for health reasons, I’d get frequent calls from both locals and New Orleans visitors who were distressed to learn that she wasn’t there anymore.
Iler had this fan club already assembled when she opened Cafe Atchafalaya. Her first New Orleans restaurant, Dante By The River, was a blend of Southern and Creole. It was more along the lines of the traditional New Orleans bistros that were beginning to open Uptown in the early 1980s.
It had much else going for it. The location was in the cluster of shops and cafes in a neighborhood that had only lately become known as Riverbend (replacing the former “around the Camellia Grill), near where the St. Charles streetcar makes its sharp turn onto South Carrollton Avenue. The building was one of the old houses that had been built out of planks and beams from dismantled river barges. Hundreds of those came down the Mississippi. They were easier to build new than to pull back upstream.
Dante By The River had been Tea ‘n’ Tiques, a combination dining room and antique store. Everything in the restaurant–including the entire restaurant itself–was for sale. Iler bought it in 1981. The antique furnishings were just what she had in mind, and it was all very charming.
She also has a major asset in the kitchen. Chef Richard Hughes would later go to New York and open a hit Louisiana-style restaurant called Memphis. Since 1990, he’s been the owner-chef of the Pelican Club, a five-star gourmet place on Exchange Alley in the French Quarter. Iler hired him from Baton Rouge. He already spoke with a nice Southern cadence. And he was a terrific cook.
Dante By The River was full most of the time, even though some interpreted Iler’s personal style as a little pushy. (Even if she liked you, Iler never candy-coated what she felt she had to tell you.) After a few years, she had had enough of trying the please all of the people all the time, and took a break. In 1986 Frank and Marna Brigtsen, fresh out of K-Paul’s, took over the place and opened their present restaurant there.
Iler came back five years later to open Cafe Atchafalaya, where she stayed for thirteen years. She died at sixty-eight, right after Thanksgiving, 2007. People still write me to ask where her restaurant is these days. I expect to be answering that question for the rest of my life.
*A very good restaurant called simply Atchafalaya is currently operating in the building that once was Iler Pope’s Cafe Atchafalaya, but there is no connection of any kind between the two.