ETIENNE’S RESTAURANT FRANCAIS
Uptown: 7638 Maple
Metairie: 3100 19th Street
In the twenty years after World War II, New Orleans was a boom town. It tried to be like other growing American cities, and succeeded rather too well. Ancient, funky aspects of the city were de-emphasized. Mardi Gras was restrained, managed as it was by the most staid element of the population, whose parades were studies in Greek classical boredom. The city’s epithet was “America’s Most Interesting City.” Which was, clearly, America’s Most Boring Civic Slogan.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the leading restaurants of the town purveyed a provincial French style. What province? New Orleans, of course. These restaurants ranged from serious to pretentious, as if the mere utterance of the words “French cuisine” were enough to inspire reverence. The dining rooms resembled some hybrid of Galatoire’s, Antoine’s and Arnaud’s: gilded, mirrored, and chandeliered (unless they had ceiling fans).
The menus of such places were practically interchangeable. Oysters Rockefeller and Bienville, shrimp remoulade and crabmeat ravigote, turtle soup and seafood gumbo began the meal. Trout amandine or meuniere, redfish with hollandaise, steak marchand de vin, and chicken Clemenceau continued it. Crawfish was rare. (Yes, really.)
Etienne DeFelice was a Cajun, and most of his waiters were, too. But Cajuns speak French, so they fit right into the French Provincial style of the 1960s and 1970s. Etienne’s Restaurant was the apotheosis of such places, both before it moved from Uptown to Metairie and after. If you asked a fan of Etienne’s what he liked about the place, you’d invariably hear, “They make such wonderful sauces!” Sauces ran around and over almost everything. Cream sauces, hollandaise-based sauces, brown sauces with mushrooms and wine, sauces, sauces, sauces. The standard side dish–creamed spinach–was itself nearly a sauce.
Despite a somewhat uppity attitude, Etienne’s was welcoming and affordable. Dinner at Etienne’s could be had for right around five dollars in the middle 1970s–including the salad, soup, entree, dessert, and coffee. Even after the double-digit inflation of the late 1970s, that dinner was still only about nine dollars. If you paid a dollar and a half extra, you could get shrimp remoulade, too.
That was a good way to start. It was one of the better remoulades, with a sharp sauce made in the red-orange style, with palpable chips of savory vegetables and firm shrimp. (Shrimp for this dish were much smaller than they are now, and I think they had the right idea back then.)
The standard entrees were well made: trout meuniere with the opaque brown sauce like the one at Arnaud’s, the fish broiled instead of fried. Redfish with capers and mushrooms and a massive flow of hollandaise. Chicken Rochambeau, with two sauces: bearnaise and a red wine sauce. Tournedos of beef with a thick brown sauce with mushrooms, completely obscuring the actual beef from view when it arrived. A famous specialty at Etienne’s was its liver and onions with bacon, and indeed it was delicious.
Etienne’s was the first restaurant where I noticed waiters routinely offering to top almost any entree with crabmeat. They pitched this as a special deal that they’d worked out with the chef, especially for just you. The practice is all but unavoidable in restaurants now, but it was uncommon then.
The dessert to get was crepes suzette–almost extinct in these parts now. They flamed them at the table with orange liqueur and brandy, and served them grandly for all of a dollar fifty.
Etienne’s cooking was rarely brilliant. But it was good enough, and the rich sauciness of all of it had its own appeal. The restaurant continued to do reasonably well into the 1980s, although most of its clientele was on the older side. Suburban Creole restaurants like Sal & Sam’s and the Red Onion, with their free-wheeling, more casual style, had stolen the younger customers.
Etienne’s moved to Metairie in 1972, relocating from its pretty but small dining rooms on Maple Street. The new restaurant was thoroughly suburban in style. Low ceilings, a fountain in front, just enough gilding to give off a rich atmosphere.
In the 1980s, Etienne De Felice was getting on in years. but he rebuffed potential buyers of his restaurant. Or he did, until he met Agnello De Angelis. He owned hotels on the Italian resort island of Capri, and had two sons and a nephew who wanted to open an Italian restaurant called Andrea’s here. The two older men had a meeting of minds, and within a few weeks Andrea’s opened in the former Etienne’s. That was 1986. It was the passing not only of a restaurant, but an entire genre of New Orleans dining. We haven’t seen its like since.