Out-Of-The-Way, Small Eateries With Big Menus
The New Orleans neighborhood restaurant is distinguished by more than its modest surroundings and backstreet location. The style of cooking in such restaurants is so familiar that you know before you look at the menu what will be on it. That’s because they have a history long enough for traditions to be in force.
The heyday of the classic neighborhood cafe began in the 1920s, when the population density in the city was at its peak, and few people had cars. If you wanted to eat and didn’t feel like cooking, you could walk a few blocks (at the most) and find an open dining room. The other people in it were also from the neighborhood, and you might very well have known them. The owner might have lived upstairs or next door, so you knew him and his wife, too.
These place picked up speed after the repeal of Prohibition in the 1930s, when serving drinks made the neighborhood cafes not only more sociable but also more profitable. That growth continued through the war years and into the 1950s, when New Orleans reached its greatest population. In most neighborhoods, you had a choice of several such places within a few blocks.
That’s when the familiar neighborhood menu came together. All the food was the same sorts of things people ate at home, but cooked in bigger batches. Some of it was the kind of thing that made such a mess that you’d prefer to go out for it rather than cook it at home. Fried chicken and seafood, for example. Italian food would always be well represented, and dishes like beef stew, stewed chicken, red beans and rice, seafood gumbo, and roast beef and gravy. The latter was always there for the making of poor boy sandwiches, which by the 1940s were a local mania.
Three forces came together in the 1960s to bring the first Golden Age of Neighborhood Restaurants to a close. Universal automobile ownership made the dispersal of the population into the suburbs possible, then inevitable. When even teenagers had their own cars, people didn’t limit themselves to the little restaurants witching walking distance. The new fast food chains found a fertile market, with the customers coming from the former clienteles of the neighborhood cafes. Whose neighborhoods were not as populous as they had been. Triple whammy. Within ten years, neighborhood restaurants were becoming extinct all over town.
The genre was saved by the same Baby Boomers who left the neighborhood cafes behind. They remembered the old places and their good fried chicken, red beans, poor boys and bread pudding. They weren’t cooking these dishes for themselves, largely because they never learned how, the way their parents had. As this nostalgia rose in the 1970s, we (I am a member of this generation and can speak for it) they went out looking for the old places and found only a few of them left. Those few were trumped up into shining examples of New Orleans culture. Mandina’s–previously just one of many restaurants just like it–was held up as the exemplar of what we needed to bring back.
The 1990s saw a great revival of the neighborhood restaurant. The new ones were bigger and drew from a wider customer base than the old ones, but the food was the same. Poor boys, red beans on Monday, beef stew on Tuesday, lasagna on Wednesday, liver and onions on Thursday, fried seafood and gumbo on Friday, bread pudding all the time–it was all back. And back for good. After Katrina, everybody (particularly in the out-of-town media, who never understood the food culture here) worried about whether the neighborhood places would survive. In fact, those restaurants came back faster and healthier than the major restaurants did. We now have more of them than at any time in the city’s history.
Indeed, as dining out continues its evolution into an entirely casual pastime, the neighborhood restaurants are on the verge of replacing the Creole bistros as the dominant category of restaurant. Not a bad thing, really.