WHY IT’S NOTEWORTHY
Restaurants in museums are not the dull snack bars they used to be. The American Sector is the restaurant of the excellent World War II Museum in the Warehouse District, with a menu that surveys 1940s retro cooking. The approach is whimsical and nostalgic, but the kitchen takes its cooking seriously, reviving dishes that haven’t been popular in a long time, with current ingredients and techniques. The style is somewhere between diner and family-style restaurant.
While the menu is sprinkled with unarguably good food, for the most part the kitchen goes too far in renovating old dishes. Most of the attempts are not improvements on but parodies of the originals. For starters, nobody ate portions half this big in the 1940s. Some items are so laughably oversize that they’re difficult to eat. The little square hamburgers stand too tall for any choppers other than those of Joe E. Brown (whose enormous mouth can be seen in one of the period photographs on the walls). The chicken and dumplings bear no resemblance to the dish that comes to mind when you hear that name. The beef tongue sandwich is a complete mess.
The World War II Museum grew out of the D-Day Museum. There is a reason it’s in New Orleans: the Higgins shipyards here built the boats used in the invasion of Normandy and elsewhere during the war. It has been a runaway success, and continues to grow. John Besh was the dominant restaurant figure in town when the main part of the museum was abuilding, and he was contracted to manage the restaurant here. It opened in 2009.
The restaurant has two parts. The spacious, tall main room surrounds a large bar. Its walls are covered with photographs 1940s celebrities, including many radio stars. The tables feel like those of an old department store restaurant back when. Next door is the Stage Door Canteen, where one can have dinner and watch a live show of dancers and singers performing the superb popular music of the era. It’s a set price with a set menu. The servers all wear white jackets and soda-jerk hats. The place really does make you feel a little as if you were in the times portrayed.
»Spicy garlic glazed fried chicken, watermelon pickles
»Rabbit paté, celery root slaw, horseradish
Fried chicken gizzards, Creole honey mustard
Mini cheeseburgers of Louisiana grass fed beef
»Fried oysters, Creole tomato dressing
Country fried onion rings
Smokey northshore lamb ribs, mayhaw glaze
»Shrimp in a jar, remoulade sauce
»Shrimp in a cup, spicy aioli
»Creamy oyster stew
Heirloom tomato soup, grilled ham and cheese
Shrimp and sausage gumbo, sassafras
Purple hull pea, hog’s head cheese, poached yard egg
»Crab ravigote, avocado, bacon
Bibb lettuce, green goddess dressing
Slow cooked beef tongue on sourdough
Local corned beef, sauerkraut, rye
Short rib sloppy joe, onion kaiser roll
Shrimp and spicy sausage po-boy
Fried seafood poor boys (trout, buster crabs, oysters, or shrimp)
»Vietnamese poor boy (pork shoulder, ham, pork belly, pickled vegetables)
The Sicilian (like a muffuletta)
»Chicken breast, bacon, piquillo pepper
Bologna (made in house!), spicy chow-chow
Foot-long hot dog, chili, cole slaw
Shrimp salad sandwich
Gracie’s blue crab and sausage stew
Meatloaf, mashed potatoes
Crispy buster crabs, baked jalepeño cheese grits
»Hanger steak, mushrooms, fried potatoes
Spaghetti and meatballs
Jumbo shrimp Creole, Louisiana jasmine rice
Chicken fried steak, mushroom gravy
Chicken and dumplings
Daube of beef, roasted root vegetables, egg noodles
»Pork cheeks, corn bread, black-eyed peas
»Potato chip crusted trout, tartar sauce
Sector jacks (like Cracker Jacks)
»Peppermint pattie with peppermint ice cream
Strawberries and funnel cakes
Sugar cane iced cupcake with candied bacon
Hazelnut, banana chocolate split
»Warm apple turnover, butter pecan ice cream
FOR BEST RESULTS
Ask detailed questions about every dish, no matter how familiar it may seem. Very little of the menu is played straight. The house-made sodas–served from real seltzer bottles at the table–are not to be missed. Kids’ meals are served in cute lunchboxes the kids can keep.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT
The 1940s were not a high point of American cuisine. The Depression and wartime rationing saw to that. But a lot of food from that era deserves to be revisited in the way it was made in the best restaurants then, instead of the overly imaginative versions American Sector serves now.
FACTORS OTHER THAN FOOD
Up to three points, positive or negative, for these characteristics. Absence of points denotes average performance in the matter.
- Dining Environment +2
- Consistency -2
- Value +1
- Attitude +2
- Wine & Bar
- Local Color +1
- Live music every night
- Courtyard or deck dining
- Good for business meetings
- Early-evening specials
- Open Sunday lunch and dinner
- Open Monday lunch and dinner
- Open all afternoon
- Unusually large servings
- Good for children
- Easy, nearby parking
- Reservations honored promptly
ANECDOTES AND ANALYSIS
The people who devised the dishes at the American Sector–from proprietor-chef John Besh on down–aren’t old enough to have a grip on what the food of seventy years ago was like. I’m not old enough, either, but enough remnants of that culinary era were still around when I started going to restaurants that I know how good some of it could be. And many of the visitors to the museum have active memories of The Big One and all the trappings of life back then. Their sensitivities should be attended to.
The same is true of other trappings of American Sector. It’s great that they play the superb popular music of the Big Band era–but they play it so loud and repetitively that it starts to grate. I think they need a curator of food and atmosphere in here.