Old Metairie: 619 Pink Street
Can you imagine a New Orleans-style restaurant that never serves crawfish? Strange as it seems, that was the case in most New Orleans eateries above the level of boiled-and-fried seafood houses in the 1960s and earlier. Crawfish–even in polite dishes like bisques, etouffees and gratins–were simply not on the menu in most white-tablecloth restaurants.
The few better establishments that made crawfish a house specialty did very well with it. The Bon Ton Café became world-famous for serving great Cajun-style crawfish dishes. Out-of-towners found it exotic and delicious, back then and still.
Delerno’s was on a crawfishing par with the Bon Ton, but focused almost entirely on local diners. J.B. Delerno (I never heard anyone–not even his wife–call him by other than his initials) spent some years in other people’s restaurants before opening his own in Old Metairie. He was quite a host, and built up a clientele so regular in their visits that it made a lasting impression.
If you mentioned Delerno’s to those people, they would almost instantaneously reply, “J.B. makes the best crawfish in town!” They wouldn’t mention which dish, exactly. J.B. cooked crawfish a lot of ways. Not only were these delicious, but they were presented more beautifully than I’ve seen crawfish served before or since.
The etouffee was a great example of that. An island of rice on the plate was surrounded by crawfish tails in a singular, deep orange sauce with a huge flavor and a tremendous number of crawfish tails. It was more a Creole etouffee than a Cajun one, but crawfish live in New Orleans, too.
That traditional dish was only the beginning. Crawfish turned up in various sauces next to or around all sort of other things: soft-shell crabs, veal, chicken. Crawfish appetizers were rife, notably an oddity called crawfish topas. These were essentially crawfish tostadas, with crawfish etouffee on flour tortillas, topped with cheese and green onions, all run under the broiler. (The name was a misspelling of “tapas.” It and the dish spread to a few other restaurants, evolving into “Topaz” somewhere along the way.)
Delerno’s cooked just about everything else well, particularly in the seafood department. It was a classic New Orleans neighborhood restaurant in the category of Mandina’s or Manale’s, with modest but comfortable dining rooms and chummy service.
Delerno’s closed when J.B. passed away in the early 1980s. It has been a number of restaurants since–two of them called “Delerno’s.” Mrs. Delerno owned the building and lived upstairs. When asked by a tenant, she’d give advice on how to run the place. The location is now the Sun Ray Grill.