The Garden Café
Uptown: 2727 Prytania, In The Rink.
The Garden Cafe was the first in a series of restaurants in the Washington Avenue-Prytania Street corner space of The Rink. A newly renovated boutique mall in 1981, The Rink actually had been a skating rink for a long enough time that the building was an antique. It was considered a very cool restoration.
The Garden Café soaked in some of this vogue, and added to it the style of the nascent gourmet bistro. That trend would reshape the dining-out scene in New Orleans during the next few years. Even then, the Baby Boomers who would fill the bistros were numerous enough to keep the Garden Café busy.
Some dozen marble-topped (but unclothed) tables were surrounded by a light, high-ceilinged space with floral wallpaper and large windows. The table settings were unusual, with heavy, irregular, emerald-rimmed drinking glasses and oversize forks and spoons.
Although the name of the place sounded like that of a generic hotel café, the presence of many French bistro dishes–not common in New Orleans in those days–gave the Garden Café a cache that Uptowners found very agreeable.
The restaurant was managed by two people I didn’t know before, and haven’t encountered since. Jack Bolaños and Jean-Pierre Schwetzer-Lagesse (a French guy with both names hyphenated!) assembled a menu that started with a semi-Euro-style breakfast, then moved to a an assortment of dishes ranging from saucisson en croute to red beans, charcuterie and pate to fried oysters, croque monsieurs to club sandwiches.
The focus at lunch was the plat du jour, with good reason: it was always remarkable. The best I remember was Tuesday’s tarragon chicken, good enough that I remember its day even now. It came with fresh-cut fried potatoes and a fresh vegetable for $5.95.
The Friday trout meuniere was also memorable, toasty and buttery, reminiscent of Galatoire’s. One day they substituted for this a stuffed trout, moistened with a sort of veloute. I usually avoid this kind of thing, but it was in a league with the stuffed trout at LeRuth’s.
The menu was full of original touches. The red beans came out with a sausage still sizzling from the grill. Chunks of ham gave the beans a sturdy flavor. But also here were some dishes from out of the fine-dining past. I think this was the last place I saw chicken Kiev and chicken Cordon Bleu.
Breakfast was remarkable for the excellence of the omelettes alone. The fines herbes omelette was astonishingly good, with nary a scorch. Croissants were wonderful. Belgian waffles–the kind with the big squares, which were only then becoming popular–had people talking. Fresh strawberries!
The Garden Café tried to open for dinner, but that never took off. They were more successful with their Sunday brunch, which was more along the lines of what they did.
After a bit less than two years, the owners sold the business to Frank Bailey, whose Indulgence in the Warehouse District (wasn’t called that then, and was a serious backwater) needed a more accessible spot for graduating from a catering operation to a full restaurant. The place is now a coffee shop, much liked by the young women from the nearby Louise S. McGehee School. Who, I think, would have liked the Garden Café. If the same restaurant were to open today, it would be a much bigger hit.