4121 St. Claude Avenue
It is accepted dogma that the people and institutions found east of Elysian Fields Avenue are different from those in any other part of New Orleans. In the great years–that would be before about 1965–the Eighth and Ninth Wards were loaded with restaurants and bars of such distinction that the very few that remain are considered holy places.
By “distinction” I don’t mean “high-toned.” Even the fanciest restaurant in Eight and Nine (that would be Restaurant Mandich, about which more elsewhere) were easy-going places with low prices and lower pretensions. And very good food.
In Little Pete’s last few years, people called me about it more and more often, more and more concerned. They should have actually gone there to eat instead. It would have been worth the trip from Chalmette or even Metairie (where a lot of former Ninth Warders lived by the 1970s). Little Pete’s distinctive stucco building–a converted cottage, five blocks from the Industrial Canal–would at the very least send them home with a New Orleans joint-style meal inside them.
Sign on the door: “You must be properly dressed to be served. All shirts must have sleeves.” This allowed T-shirts, which were worn by most of the old pooperoos at the bar. So it was casual. It was also noisy. The juke box near the front door was always playing loudly. Also there was a Captain Fantastic flipper machine in continuous use, and a pay phone usually attached to a loudmouth. That guy probably was taking a break from a beer and the raucous conversation among the T-shirted guys on the stools.
The menu board (most of whose information was duplicated on the printed menu) covered more territory than seemed likely. The kitchen staff handled it all with aplomb, from the raw oysters to the seafood platters to the red beans and rice to the poor boy sandwiches. But that was only the start of what you could eat at Little Pete’s They made not only a fine seafood gumbo but also a soup-like crawfish etouffee that was peppery and loaded with mudbug tails.
Little Pete’s was primarily a seafood place, though. Most who remember it think first about the oyster bar, where the bivalves were cold, big, salty, and really cheap all the time. I certainly remember them well.
In 1978, when I wrote my first and last review of Little Pete’s, the fried seafood platter was $4. It was first-class, fried to order, light and well seasoned. The fish on the plate was speckled trout; also there were oysters, shrimp, stuffed crab and a small soft-shell crab.
Little Pete’s was the first place I ever saw a soft-shell crab poor boy. That’s common now, but so offbeat as to be memorable then. You started in on the sandwich eating legs and claws, then munch through the lump-meat body, then come full circle with the opposite legs and claws.
Behind the bar were bumper stickers that said, “Thank God I’m Italian.” They cooked a handful of Italian dishes, but they weren’t a feature. Unless you had them work the meatballs and Italian sausage into a poor boy. Really, all the poor boys were good. They had to be. The general vicinity was where the sandwich had been invented, and with competition like Martin’s Poor Boy Restaurant and Clarence and Lefty’s within a few blocks, a second-rate roast beef would not have been tolerated.
Red beans and rice were delicious every day. That was the most popular of the plate specials. They also had country (a.k.a. chicken-fried) steak, served not with the pasty Texas-style cream gravy but the same one as on the roast beef. Chicken made a good meal: fried, broiled, or bordelaise. They would fix you a steak, but I never saw anyone get that.
The bread pudding was good, even though it was served cold. The ladies who waited on you were like your mother (if you were 26, as I was then.) As for Little Pete, that was another Ninth Ward joke. Pete was anything but little.