789 Harrison Ave., Lakeview.
The name Landry graced an unlikely abundance of New Orleans area restaurants over the years. The farthest back I can go without reference works is the mid-1930s, when Simon Landry opened Mother’s. It remained under his family’s management for two generations. People who visited the Cajun country found several well-established restaurants called Landry’s–notably a restaurant on the I-10 around Breaux Bridge. That place, originally family-run business, was later bought by the guy who created the Houston-based chain of Landry’s restaurants that you see all over the place in this part of the world–including the one on Lakeshore Drive in West End now. He wanted to nail down the Landry’s name. That, as we have seen, is not easily done.
The Landry’s I’m talking about here was strictly a local operation. There was no way that could be faked. Everything about the place seemed to run on minimum requirements–except for the food, which was very fresh and good.
The most curious story behind this Landry’s (Harrison Ave., corner of Memphis, two blocks off Canal Boulevard), was that for a good while in the 1960s it was Drago’s. But that was more of a coincidence than a history. Although Drago Cvitanovich worked at this Drago’s before he opened his current seafood house in Metairie, the Lakeview Drago’s was actually owned by a different Drago. Drago Batinich, to make things even more complicated, was a close friend of Drago Cvitanovich. “Drago Batinich and his wife were like family to us,” says Tommy Cvitanovich, Drago’s son.
At some moment in the early 1970s, this old Drago’s became a place called Mr. V’s, which it was for most of the 1970s. It was followed by another restaurant called Lena’s before it became Landry’s. It didn’t change much otherwise. For example, it continued to operate a full-scale oyster bar. Oyster bars are, for all their prominence in the New Orleans dining scene, not numerous. Maintaining the service of freshly-opened raw oysters is a major commitment on the part of any restaurateur who undertakes it.
The oysters at Landry’s were always big, fresh, cold and luscious. Despite that, oyster sales here are far exceeded by those of poor boy sandwiches, plate lunches, and seafood platters. Landry’s served those and all the other dishes you’d expect to find in a corner cafe.
Especially good were the chicken and sausage gumbo and the red beans and rice, both of which were available all the time. The latter came routinely with what I think is the best possible topping for beans: hot sausage. Hot sausage is not quite right if it’s not greasy and really a little too hot, but that described the kind Landry’s served.
As simple as it looked, Landry’s got a bit ambitious with its cooking now and then. Oysters Rockefeller, good seafood pasta dishes, and panneed veal (and other Italian dishes) were all beyond reproach. They fried with deftness. Not just seafood, but chicken, too.
The long, somewhat stark dining room opened early in the morning for one of the cheapest basic breakfasts around. They attracted a pretty good business with this, mostly among people who lived in Lakeview. Almost always were a few tables of businessmen making a stop en route to their downtown offices.
Landry’s was something of a secret among Lakeview people. I never heard many reports about it, but whenever I did they always glowed. Then the person would be quick to saw what a no-frills place it was, as if to keep you away.
Landry’s was killed by Katrina, like almost everything else in that vast and deeply-flooded part of town. A few years after the storm, it came back under new owners. It never seemed to resume its past attraction,however–perhaps because so many old customers were gone. It closed with so little fanfare that I’m note sure when it did.
I’d trade one of these for twenty of the chain Landry’s. Even the one with the lake view.