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.