Lee Circle Area: 1716 St. Charles Avenue (Later 1617).
All memorable restaurants are unique in some way. Corinne Dunbar’s–about which I am still asked after more than two decades since it served its final meal–was unique in a way that itself was unique. Its story is one of the most interesting ever told by a New Orleans restaurant.
Corinne Dunbar opened her restaurant in the grand parlor of her own home in the middle of the Great Depression. Her husband had died, and his food distribution business was failing. Corinne was a cultured member of New Orleans society, and she didn’t want that life to end. So she brought her skills as a hostess to bear in the service of dinner to whomever was willing to pay for the pleasure.
Corinne Dunbar served her customers as if they were guests at a party in her home. Everyone arrived at the same time, was greeted by a maid and a butler, and seated in one of the Belle Epoque-style parlors. Then the set menu of the night was served to every guest. Guests paid discreetly on the way in, preserving the illusion all the way through the evening.
This idea was so engaging that a reservation at Corinne Dunbar’s became the toughest to secure anywhere in town. This was especially true in the decade following World War II, when gourmets flocked to New Orleans for a taste of Europe. (Europe itself was out of business at the time.) Dunbar’s was declared by a wide range of famous people to be the best restaurant in New Orleans, and perhaps in the entire world.
It wasn’t. Not, at least, if you were primarily interested in the goodness of the food you ate. Although it does seem that Corinne Dunbar’s chefs in its prime years could cook with the best of them, the creative flow had stopped long before I was able to get there.
At the death of Corinne Dunbar in 1947, her daughter took over but altered nothing. The restaurant changed hands again (although still within the family) in 1956. Jimmy Plauche was the final owner. He is best remembered for moving the restaurant a block away to a somewhat larger but just as authentically Creole mansion. He also instituted the sale of alcoholic beverages at Dunbar’s for the first time.
The local customers (although not the tourists) drifted away in the 1960s, a decline accelerated by reviews from Richard Collin in 1970. Few restaurants received commentary as harsh as Collin dealt Corinne Dunbar’s, which he thought was outmoded, corny, and tasteless. The invective was so strong that Plauche ran retaliatory ads in the newspaper. They didn’t name Collin, but it was clear who the ads’ target was.
Nevertheless, Corinne Dunbar’s managed to hang onto shreds of its reputation for good cooking because of a single dish. Oysters Dunbar was a unique appetizer involving artichokes, mushrooms, and bread crumbs. Even Collin admitted it was delicious. And, unlike most of the ever-changing menu, it was available every night. Dunbar’s was also famous for gumbo z’herbes–the gumbo made with more greens than anything else. Indeed, it was one of the few restaurants that kept that dish alive into a new generation of eaters.
If Corinne Dunbar’s were resurrected as it was in its glory days (the building is still there, ready for service), it’s hard to imagine that even its most avid fans would go there much. It was just chugging along when it closed in the late 1980s. By that time the gourmet bistros had taken over, and old-fashioned formality was waning fast. But past diners who didn’t have to see that happen carry nothing but golden memories of the restaurant where you dined as if you were in an old, formerly wealthy friend’s home.