For reasons that have never been clear, certain restaurant locations have hosted an inordinately large number of eateries over the years. The restaurants open, the restaurant close. Some of the exits are due to poor performance. But just as often the food and service are interesting and good.
The only explanation I have for this effect is that the locations are less good than they seem. They’re visible, convenient, and attractive. But some little thing makes people stay away in droves long enough that the restaurant doesn’t make it.
This is the first in a series of articles about such locations. We begin with a two-part look at the corner of Hammond Highway and Lake Avenue, where to this day is found the only traffic signal in the old Bucktown neighborhood.
C’Est la Vie
Late 1970s-early 1980s
The first restaurant I can remember at this location was C’Est La Vie. The name tells us that these were the days when you could give a French name to a straight-ahead New Orleans restaurant without implying that French food was served there. (Compare this to the wide use of “laissez le bon temps rouler!” to give a New Orleans touch to a party of crawfish and beer.)
C’Est la Vie had not caught on in the times where I went there. Mostly, it was a seafood restaurant, complete with gumbo, platters, and a few dishes with familiar sauces and garnishes (trout amandine, for example). It was there for a few years, and I never found it interesting enough to review.
Mid 1980’s-late 1990s.
The most successful restaurant ever at the corner of Hammond Highway at Lake Avenue was the creation of Joe Pacaccio, a long-time New Orleans restaurateur. He opened at a time when the restaurant community was expanding and innovating. He also had the good luck (or sense) to choose a spot that had come to be cool. Baby Boomers, in their twenties and thirties, loved the worn-out antique buildings of Bucktown’s old fishing community. They were also ready to try something new.
Carmine’s was half seafood, half Italian. It was the former endeavor that drew the crowds. In its heyday, you always had to wait for a table at Carmine’s. The strongest people magnets were two unique dishes. One was good and new. The other would become permanently associated with the mere mention of the name Carmine’s.
I don’t think Carmine’s was the first restaurant in town to serve soft-shell crawfish, a new item from the farms in Cajun country. It was a mind-over-matter matter. When soft-shell crawfish were good, they tasted like crawfish. Most of the time, they were like some anonymous seafood. And they were expensive–about a dollar per bug. But the craze was on (compare with today’s pork belly fad), and everybody wanted them. Joe Pacaccio served them sauteed, with a creamy, pink, spicy sauce.
The immortal Carmine’s dish was the seafood-stuffed artichoke. The name describes is fully: it was a steamed artichoke into whose leaves were pieces of fried oysters, catfish, shrimp and crawfish (not soft-shell). In the center of the big prickly artichoke was a creamy dill sauce. People went wild over this, with good reason. It really was terrific, and remained a specialty until Carmine’s closed its last location.
While Carmine’s was in Bucktown, it was a phenom, serving an uncommonly large range of food for such a small restaurant. During a little-remembered period in the 1990s, Joe even opened for breakfast. On that menu was the first and only version of grillades and grits I’ve ever encountered that was actually grilled. (Most of the time, the “grillades” are either braised or sauteed.) This may also have been the best example of grillades I ever ate.
The small size of the restaurant ultimately held back its potential. Joe opened a second location in Metairie, in the area adjacent to places like Houston’s and Chili’s. When his lease ran out in Bucktown, he left the old place behind and moved to the new one. He remained there until that lease expired in 2012, at which time he retired from the restaurant business. I still get calls from fans who wonder where he (and, more important, his seafood-stuffed artichoke) are these days.
Rico’s Bucktown Café
After Carmine’s left, the restaurant building at the corner of Hammond Highway and Lake Avenue underwent a renovation. When it reopened in 2001, it did so with a promising future. Its new owner was one of the most familiar figures in New Orleans dining circles.
George Rico was a character. For longer than anyone can remember, he was in charge of the front door at Commander’s Palace. He rose to that position after starting as a busboy–which was what he was doing at Commander’s when the Brennans took over in the early 1970s. He literally came with the building.
George had no intention of leaving Commander’s when he opened Rico’s. Which was fine with many of his regulars, who could always count on George to know who they were and find them a table on a busy night.
But his new restaurant in Bucktown took him by surprise. He was going to let his family and partners run the place, and planned to work a few days a week there. That wasn’t nearly enough. With no small trepidation, he left Commander’s, never to return.
The Bucktown location created the expectation that Rico’s would be a casual, cheap seafood house. Or maybe something like Carmine’s. It turned out along the lines of Drago’s. Casual and moderately priced, lots of seafood, but only a little of it fried and none of it boiled. And beyond George’s smiling face, there wasn’t a lot reminiscent of Commander’s.
Well, Rico’s did have turtle soup. And a crab-and-corn bisque. Both good, but different from Commander’s. And shrimp remoulade–with a white sauce instead of the red one Commander’s made. Bacon-wrapped shrimp with hot sauce butter was a bigger hit. So were the crab cakes–made with jumbo lump crabmeat, like George was accustomed to selling. He also favored you with a whole flounder, a fried seafood platter, or shrimp Creole.
The renovation had made the dining room brighter, with white walls covered with Bucktown memorabilia. A rare outdoor dining area in front was enclosed by awnings and filled up rapidly.
The way I understand it, Rico’s grew too fast. That requires capital, and they didn’t have quite enough of it. And then George got sick. He passed away a few years later, leaving many nice memories. I should have known something was wrong. While at Commander’s, he was a starting point for many jokes that would shortly sweep across the city. I hardly ever heard him tell a joke at Rico’s.