Riverbend: 8324 Oak St.
The restaurant at 8324 Oak Street is very well known to fans of New Orleans food, both locally and across the country. That’s the address of Jacques-Imo’s, a cult restaurant with a following as enthusiastic as it is numerous.
The fame of Jacques-Imo’s obscures the memories of two previous restaurants at that location. When Café Savanna opened in the early 1980s, the trends in the New Orleans restaurant scene were beginning an historic shift. Small casual restaurants began cooking at a level as fine as that of much dressier places. Mr. B’s, Stephen & Martin, Clancy’s, Bouligny, the Upperline, and Gautreau’s led the new vogue, which would take a few years to establish itself.
In the meantime, a few neighborhood cafes were playing the same game, at a bit less ambitious level. Café Savanna was one of the best of these. It took over a ramshackle pizza shop in the Oak Street commercial district, performed a little bit of renovation and expansion, and opened with a broad menu of sandwiches, salads, and platters.
Had Café Savanna had opened in 2013, it would be as hip now as it was in 1982. Danny and Lisa Sommers–a young couple who would leave the business when they started having children–did everything that we now find in the hot restaurant row on Freret Street thirty years later.
A first-class, hand-formed, grilled-to-order hamburger was abetted with hand-cut fries. In the 1980s, you could count the number of places with fresh-cut fries on the fingers of one hand. Making the fries even better was the Creole seasoning sprinkled over them–a brilliant idea only rarely encountered even now. Those fries were reason enough to go to Café Savanna. But they didn’t stop there. Other vegetables–eggplant, mirlitons, asparagus, and cauliflower–were also fried and seasoned the same way.
Grilled fish was just beginning to catch on in the bistros. Café Savanna latched onto that trend, as well as the one that had every kind of restaurant, top to bottom, serving pasta with creamy sauces with seafood. (You still had to go to an Italian place for red sauces.)
But they also had the familiar fried seafood platters, red beans on Monday, and a decent assortment of sandwiches. The chicken-fried steak was–unlike the more famous one at the College Inn a mile away–not only edible but delicious. The dessert emphasis was on pie, which they baked in a different variety every day.
The premises were appealing, in a rustic, late-1960s way. An interesting element of decor was an assortment of 1930s-era advertising pieces for the local soft drink Dr Nut. Coincidentally, Dr Nut made its third and final reappearance in the market around the time that Café Savanna opened.
On my first visit to Café Savanna, I had a flashback. I knew I had been there before, and it took only a second to remember when and why. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, I worked three blocks away at the original Time Saver store on Carrollton and Oak. One of our customers, hanging around the store drinking a Coke so he wouldn’t have to pay the two-cent deposit on the returnable bottle, got into a conversation with me about the roast beef poor boy.
“The best roast beef in town is right across the street!” he said. “Have you tried it at Adolph’s?” No, I hadn’t. But the promise of a great version of that sandwich–the first dish for which I had personal criteria of excellence–was enough to make me try it. It really was good, with a kind of dry-roasted beef and a gravy so intense in flavor that you didn’t need to flood the sandwich with it to get a good flavor.
The premises were minimal: all there was to the place was what is now the front room at Jacques-Imo’s. They had a brief but comprehensive menu of lunchtime specialties: sandwiches, seafood platters, a couple of daily specials. I remember red-checked tablecloths, unpainted wood, and inadequate lighting even during the day. And very good food at prices that were mostly less than a dollar. (I am not kidding.)
I became a semi-regular at Adolph’s, but this was a few years before I started writing about restaurants. I never did compose a review. Neither did Richard Collin, the Underground Gourmet–my mentor and the leading (only, really) food critic of his day. That lack of coverage made Adolph’s one of the most obscure good restaurants within the limits of the memory of my generation. Or the one before it.
I’ll bet Adolph’s served Dr Nut during its second incarnation, in 1964. (It was the best soft drink of my life, so I would have ordered it with my grilled ham and cheese poor boy.)