Extinct Restaurants

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Hummingbird Grill
Arts District: 804 St. Charles Avenue

The Hummingbird Grill would probably be a wildly successful restaurant if it were still open. It was a twenty-four-hour diner—one of the few in New Orleans. And it was unarguably a dive. A little harder to grasp was that it was a hotel restaurant. The Hummingbird Hotel never won any stars for its accommodations.

But the Hummingbird Grill did get stars from critics and fans, of which it had many. They came from a broader a socio-economic spectrum than was seen by any other restaurant. People who would spend their last dollar then had to find a place to sleep that night were at the Hummer’s counter. But so were men and women in formal wear, en route home from an underfed, oversloshed, high-society party.

The late-nighters came not only because the place was open, but because the food was good. More than a few times the Hummingbird Grill was compared favorably with the much more genteel Camellia Grill at the other end of the streetcar line. The menus were quite similar. And the coin deciding which had the better hamburger is still in the air.

The Hummingbird Grill got rolling in the flush times following World War II. Although it and the hotel were in one of the Thirteen Sisters buildings on Julia Street—a century earlier as fine a place to live as could be found in New Orleans—the neighborhood by then was thoroughly industrial. I remember, for example, the Active Linotype Service was around the corner, melting lead to make hot metal type for printers. These blue-collar people worked around the clock, and wanted food that was ample, inexpensive, hearty, and (because this is New Orleans) delicious.

You could not have found a plate of red beans and rice much better than was served at the Hummingbird Grill. Not only were the beans and sausage hot and savory, but they came with a big cube of dark-crusted cornbread, baked on the premises every day. The cornbread was a draw unto itself.

And that was only one of five or six daily platters in the offing. Some were better than others, but you wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen eating any of it. They used ingredients of at least decent quality, and whoever was in the kitchen was almost as gifted as the guy who lettered the sign on the sidewalk.

Little-known fact: a surprising percentage of sign painters are very familiar with Skid Row. A lot of cooks turn up there, too. Or did, in the days when the homeless population of New Orleans was centered on the corner of Camp and Julia, a block away. I know, because I lived near there for a few years in the late 1970s, when the first pioneers of what would become the Arts District started moving in.

Those who didn’t could not be dragged into the Hummingbird Grill had problems with the neighborhood. Those who did like the place pointed out that the lunch counter was always full of uniformed New Orleans policemen on their meal breaks. Only an idiot would try to start a rumble there.

The Hummingbird was famous for its breakfasts, which I found less impressive than their lunch and dinner food. It’s the only restaurant where I ever saw milk toast on the menu. That’s the very poor man’s bread pudding: toasted bread soaking in sweetened milk. I asked the waiter what it was like. He shook his head. “It’s what you can hold down if you have a bad hangover.” Yes, yes.

The Hummingbird Hotel and Grill closed at the end of 2001, as investors saw the building as an ideal place to advance the burgeoning redevelopment of that part of St. Charles Avenue. Nothing much has happened. Meanwhile, the owner of the Camellia Grill bought the rights to the name, and even opened a Hummingbird Grill—in Elmwood, of all places. It didn’t last long. How could it have? Not enough grease deposits.

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  1. Susan on April 23, 2014

    My husband and I stayed at the Hummingbird Hotel in 1984 while we were working in the French Quarter. This was the year the World Fair was in New Orleans, right after Mardi Gras. It was quite an interesting place, as was the Artist Cafe where musicians from all over would gather to jam. That was where I saw a lady playing the bass with a washtub, a broomstick, and a rope. I will never forget those days.

    • Lynn M. on May 21, 2015

      Don’t know if you will ever see this but… my ex-husband (boyfriend at the time) and I lived there for several months in the late Summer/early Fall of 1984 also. By chance did your husband work at the restaurant there? I remember a really nice guy named Leon that worked there and taught me how wait tables. I know he and his wife lived there and worked banquets and catering jobs in the Quarter.

    • Linda Kunz on March 27, 2017

      I worked there as a waitress back in 1994 , love the place . the food was good . I remember Richard, Bertha’s brother worked nights i the kitchen prepareing the morning meals. I had so much fun working at the Bird, I have been living in Texas since 2006 , really miss everyone . Good Memories .

  2. Danielle on May 6, 2014

    After a 31 day bicycle trip in March 1987 – from Lebanon, New Hampshire to New Orleans – my boyfriend and I landed at the Hummingbird with two bikes and very little money left. We were given a huge room and a few days to have funds wired via Western Union to pay the bills and we ended up staying a week, being treated with such kindness and generosity of spirit. The Hummingbird hotel and grill was a particularly unexpected but welcome shelter and will always hold special memories for me.

  3. Joe Morgan on July 19, 2014

    I worked there as a cook in 1978 running from unpaid child support. It was a great place, I was taken in and treated like a son. I was there for two years. I will always remember the bird.

    • Eddie on April 22, 2017

      I was there in 1976 and met quite a few people while working out of Harry’s day labor place nearby. The Oysters and Fries were the best, and at the time, was written up as one of NOLA’s 10 best restaurants. I remember an older guy who left Miami and his life as a Hyatt manager after finding his wife with the pool guy, saved up all his earned money from the week and blew it all on Crawfish on the week-end. NO was a great place to hang out and no one bothered anyone. Saw and heard some great bands/music, especially at 5 in the morning cycling between the party-ers in the Quarter on the way to work from N. Rampart St to St. Charles Ave.

  4. Alexis on August 30, 2014

    I used to go as a student at Tulane to the French Quarter on some odd nights when nobody else went out. I liked exploring the seedy side of New Orleans and many nights I ended up eating at the Hummingbird. I hate to admit but I have fond memories of being so out of it and eating their breakfasts. The toast reminded me of a place my father took me as a little girl; soggy with butter and yet ready and delicious with some jam on it cut diagonally with two pieces face to face. I miss those days. Hard to believe 1990/1991 was so long ago.

  5. Vicky Farmer on October 12, 2014

    Back in the day, me and my boyfriend were drinkers and parties and general ‘street people’ from the ‘seedier’ part of town. I wouldn’t trade those times or people for anything….but I digress. In the wee hours of the a.m. after our party was winding down, we’d stop in the Hummingbird Grill and scarf down a delicious and inexpensive breakfast, surrounded by such a warm and eclectic group of diners. I will always think of the Hummingbird with fond memories and sadness that it’s gone forever.

  6. Max White on January 9, 2015

    I’m heartbroken, my thirtyone year old daughter is travelling the States, the first name on my lips was ‘the hummingbird’. I stayed there in ”79, the real America that I always read about. I still have the receipts, but what about that Jukebox? I think every disc had a NewOrleans connection. Twenty fourhours 365 days a year, they never closed, and the guys working the grill were real artists, I remember speaking with the fella who posted above, he told me of how they made him feel like family, as I sat there in the early hours, often a little drunk, playing Fats Domino ‘Walkin to New Orlean’ on that best of all juke boxes. Max White. Windsor United Kingdom.

    • Olivier Marie on February 4, 2015

      I was there during the Summer of 1979 with three other French guys. We shared a 2 bed room for $40 a week while working at the Royal Sonesta as bus boys. The grill, the vets in the street, the pungent smells, all is gone; gentrification is taking hold in this block and the whole area in general. It feels like a whole piece of an era has been torn away. I feel lucky to have experienced it. Très dommage….

  7. Deb on January 10, 2015

    Just saw the Hummingbird grill in the play Airline in Chicago!

  8. Don Poole on May 15, 2015

    Loved the Hummingbird. A dive, it’s true, but when I used to go there in the early 70’s it was owned by a group of New Orleans finest, and I always knew there was not going to be any trouble there! So that formerly wonderful part of skid row is now “The Arts District,” huh? ‘sokay, I guess. I’m for sure too old to fight about it!

  9. Don Poole on May 15, 2015

    A couple of my friends, who were natives, frequented Rabbito’s, next door. but it just wasn’t my kind of joint.

  10. Lynn Myers on May 20, 2015

    My ex-husband (boyfriend at the time) and I lived at the Hummingbird for several months in 1984. I worked there and my entire paycheck went straight back to cover the $60/week rent. I got to keep my tips, which were actually pretty decent for a dive/greasy spoon place like “The Bird”. I was all of 16 years old (I told them I was older), working the graveyard shift from 1:00am to 9:00am. It was my first waitressing job and I worked with a great guy named Leon that taught me everything I needed to know (and he also loved to play Janice Joplin’s ‘Mercedes Benz’ on that famous jukebox over and over…lol). Then there was the awesome cook Danny…. I remember people coming in just to eat his cooking and several that would turn around and leave if they didn’t see him at the grill. After a bad night I would get off work in the morning and go walk through the Quarter hunting for cash or jewelry that people may have dropped while drunk the night before. If I’d had a good night, the bf and I would head to a 24 hour dive bar not too far away called ‘The Mansion’. Oh the memories…. I still can’t believe some of the things I did when I was younger, definitely a much different time.

    • bruce todd on September 2, 2015

      I practically grew up in the Hummingbird in the late 60s and 70’s. My father worked offshore as a cook and sometimes as a waiter at the grill. Hus name was Carl Todd. I worked on weekends as a 16 year old. One room often had illegal gambling. The owner of the hotel had mob connections, had been a Congressman, and married a high class call girl, according to the stories of the day. I knew the owners and I believe it was true. It never was robbed while all of the other businesses on skid row were. I will never forget the colorful characters from the con artist who sold jewelry and knives lined up inside his trench coat, the photographer who worked from his room, the creep who worked and lived there, the hookers whom it was my job to help them to their room when they were too wasted, and many others.

  11. Shane MacKean on August 13, 2015

    My friend John Moore and I were travelling the States by Greyhound Bus in ’77. We spent three days in NO, and I’m fairly certain that we stayed at the Hummingbird Hotel: we certainly started each of those three days with breakfast at the Hummingbird Grill. I particularly remember the cornbread, but little else except that breakfast was uniformly excellent. I do have some photographs of the exterior of the Grill, from across the road.

  12. Peter on October 2, 2015

    So in the 80’s we ate there often as college students, late after music or whatever. The grits were wonderful and in a big crock pot in the corner. I asked the cook how long it took them to use up a crock full of the grits, one night or what? He said that he didn’t know, they just added in to it over the days, weeks and years, and as far as he knew it had never needed emptying or cleaning, it just stayed hot and full all the time. 🙂 Half a bird please……

  13. Dave on October 13, 2015

    On Christmas Eve of ’94 I had been drinking too much in the Quarter and got beat and robbed of about $4 outside the Royal St. Grocery. Next thing I know I’m in Charity Hospital. Well, they released me about 3am. I had been robbed of my wallet, keys, cigarettes, everything. A kindly old lady, probably around 65 or so, spotted me walking along Canal St. and for whatever reason, she stopped her old station wagon and offered a ride. In her car was another person she’d picked up, a young black girl also down on her luck. This old lady had a Bible she was preaching from and lots of menthol cigarettes to share. She knew both me and the girl were hungry and we stopped in at the Hummingbird. I remember she bought both the girl and I a hamburger. She just kept preaching and eventually drove me to my place at 2501 Carondalette. She also gave me a fresh pack of GPC Menthols. I’ll never forget the times I had in the 1 1/2 years I lived in the Big Easy or the kindness and eccentricity of that old lady from Mississippi. So many people passed through my life living in New Orleans, often for one night only but the impact and quality of the encounters were invaluable.

  14. Ray Hensley on March 29, 2016

    I I lived in the hotel above the restaurant and hung out at the Hummingbird Lounge in the late 60s and early 70s. I had lots of friends on both sides of the bar. We played many a game of pool in the back room with guys who came for the action from all over the country. I was lucky enough to date a beautiful gal who worked behind the bar there at the Hummingbird. She managed the place for Harry for several years. Her initials were T.B. She had a way about her that made her something special.
    I think of her still every now and then, and the times we all had who partied there together back in our younger days Jolly & Big Bob, Toni, & Officer Mac, Roy Richardson, Jelly Belly and all the rest. Wish we could do it all again.
    Ray Hensley

    • I worked in the bar several times between the years of 75-80. I wasn’t but 17 then but nobody even the owners Harry and Bertha (I have forgotten their last name after all these years) ever asked me how old I was. I also worked at Whitey’s Circle View Tavern. Whitey had been dead for many years by this time and his wife Irene owned and ran it. When she wasn’t there she had a guy named Barry who managed the place. Sometime between those places I even worked around the corner on Julia St. at the Mansion. But I always found myself back at the Hummingbird.
      The times were very different then. But I wouldn’t trade my memories from then for anything . I was sad to hear that it was torn down when my husband and I went back to see it. (The week before Katrina hit . ) I hope you’re as happy with your memories as I am with mine .

    • I worked in the bar several times between the years of 75-80. I wasn’t but 17 then but nobody even the owners Harry and Bertha (I have forgotten their last name after all these years) ever asked me how old I was. I also worked at Whitey’s Circle View Tavern. Whitey had been dead for many years by this time and his wife Irene owned and ran it. When she wasn’t there she had a guy named Barry who managed the place. Sometime between those places I even worked around the corner on Julia St. at the Mansion. But I always found myself back at the Hummingbird.
      The times were very different then. But I wouldn’t trade my memories from then for anything . I was sad to hear that it was torn down when my husband and I went back to see it. (The week before Katrina hit . ) I hope you’re as happy with your memories as I am with mine . Like you I sometimes wish I could do it all over again .

  15. Kelly on May 14, 2016

    The Bird was legendary to me. I was stationed in N.O. in the Navy in the early ’90’s and loved the Hummingbird. When I had the weekend off I would stay there for a few days and eat there and hang with the locals. The Quarter was fun, but I liked it a little more down and dirty because I thought of myself as a ‘real sailor’. The jukebox, the greasy southern food (being from California it was new to me), and the people were exactly what I was looking for in my N.O. experience. Never forget when my Mom flew out to visit me, I had her stay at the Bird. At first she said “I don’t think so” with the bathroom accommodations and all.. but she got into it being the cool lady she was. Sad to hear it is no longer.. I always meant to return.

  16. I worked there in 1988 while running from the law in Florida. I met some of the family who owned it (Jimmy & his brother) when I was living in the Driftwood motel on Okaloosa island in Ft. Walton beach. They told me to go there when I hit New Orleans and boy am I glad I did. I lived there and waited tables at night for tips to live on. I later worked at Commanders Palace with all of my new talents. Good times.

  17. Kevin Austin on February 6, 2017

    I work and live there back in 94 and 95 was 22 years old took off on a hitchhiking Adventure stayed for six months had the best time of my life what a dive though haha:)

  18. NEWT on February 10, 2017

    I arrived in New Orleans in 1966 fresh out of hi school and the U.S.Navy. I went to The Hummingbird Bar and Grille. I got a room and a job washing dishes. After a month i was waiting tables and cooking. i meet Warren La Flour who worked at Antoines. he was able to get me hired as a bus boy. 3 ears later warren and i moved on to Galataries in waiter positions. That was the start. for the next 20 years i bummed aroung nola waiting tables at Brennens, The Court of 2 sisters, commanders oalace and more. thanks to Mr La Flour. The hummingbird and mr harry haiiensbeckthe owner of the hummingbird, I got off to a good life in new orleans. THANK YOU!!

  19. Tom A on June 13, 2017

    A friend and I worked as interns at the NOPL in 1994 and had lodgings at the Y on Lee Circle. We’d pass by the Hummingbird on our way to work every day and I fondly remember having a few breakfasts there – they were nice and cheap; great for young men who were always hungry and always broke.

  20. Paul Shaw on October 26, 2017

    I stayed at the Hummingbird for four nights in 1980. I found it fascinating! I am a bit puzzled though because what I remember of the internal layout doesn’t match with the pictures I can find or the descriptions. What I remember is what appeared to be a wood-frame construction built around two internal rectangular ‘courtyards’ which were open to the sky and had balconies around the sides on each floor. The door to my room on the second floor was on one of those balconies. I thought the building was four or five stories high. Some of the floors appeared to be roped off at the stairwells and I thought that might be because they were unsafe. My $5 a night room was long and narrow. There was a substantial gap at the bottom of the door and what looked like a large industrial exhaust fan perched on a dresser to provide ventilation. The single bed had a dip in the middle where the wire base had sagged, but the sheets appeared to be clean. The pictures and descriptions I can find show/mention a brick building of no more than three stories. So, can someone correct or refresh my memories? Are there any pictures of the inside of the hotel? Even in those days, it was a ramshackle building and I thought it was on its last legs. Apparently though it survived until at least 2001. Does it still exist? What is there now? The Hummingbird was as much a part of my visit to New Orleans as were my trips to Bourbon Street. It still sparks my imagination. So, can anyone point me to links/stories/information about this fantastic old building?

    The Hummingbird Grill and the Hotel are both long gone. The building, on the corner of Julia and St. Charles, are part of what had been an important collection of upscale townhouses known–because they’re all similar–the 13 sisters. Look that up in artchitectural works and you can read more about that.