West End Park
West End Park
The handsomest of all the new restaurants along the west side of West End Park, Pique’s Wharf tried to go full-tilt gourmet, but with a style that reminded one more of places like Houlihan’s. The hand-drawn menu was on an enormous card that cut off communications among the diners at a table while they read the thing. Which took awhile. Not only were many dishes on it, but a majority were things that required explanations. How else to find out what “oysters Smokey Mary” were like? The menu also sported a byzantine set of symbols that told which dishes were spicy, which were gourmet, and which were house specialties. And, as if that weren’t enough, advertising for outside businesses ran along the perimeter.
It was all a bit too much to take in. If the food had been good, it might have been worth it. But it always seemed to me to have been conceived by someone who had read about fine dining but not actually experienced it—let alone cooked it. A little too creative.
After Pique’s closed, the good-looking space with its lake view became Willie G’s. The seafood platters were as generous as those at Bruning’s and Fitzgerald’s, but better. Nothing was ever overcooked or tepid; it all seemed to be fried to order. I was so impressed that I talked about it a lot on my new radio talk show. The business didn’t boom, but Willie G’s seemed to be doing pretty well.
Then one of the owners had what he thought was a brilliant idea. Unlike most other seafood-loving cities, New Orleans had never had a steamed-seafood restaurant. Willie G’s rebuilt its kitchen to that end, and one day swapped out the fried for the steamed.
It was a disaster. You have to grow up with steamed seafood to like it. Nobody around her had. You also need to like seafood that tends to the mild side of the flavor spectrum. (Some of it can be spicy, but not much.) And you have to get over the idea that food is best served piping hot—which steamed seafood often is not. It would not be the last time a seafood steamery opened with a bang and died with a whimper. (Visko’s, which also tried steaming seafood, was brought down by it.)
They put the fried stuff back, but the momentum was lost. I don’t think Willie G’s lasted out the year. It closed, and the building sat unused for awhile. One night, it had a big fire, leaving only the stilts poking out of the water.