One of the most beloved neighborhood institutions in this town is Ye Olde College Inn. In the style of local restaurants serving New Orleans-style comfort food, the place had a great run from its beginnings in 1933 until Katrina closed it in 2005.
The Carrollton area where the restaurant is located was hit pretty heavily with flooding, and Ye Olde College Inn took its time coming back. The new Ye Olde College Inn was much fancier than the original. That is not to say it was fancy, just fancier. That wouldn’t take much.
Its popularity could be attributed to its large menu of food like Mom would have cooked, its walls covered with local sports memorabilia, and the overall camaraderie that permeates the air. Emile Ruffin, the owner back in the day, was a fixture at the bar, visiting with regular patrons who filled the place every night.
Emile did not return with the new place after Katrina, and there was some grumbling that it had gone too upscale. But on a recent visit I have to say that the raffishness that was a trademark of the old place has definitely crept back into the “new” one, now over 15 years running.
The last time we had dinner there was when our daughter was in college at Tulane, proving that we are definitely not regulars. At that time I remember being charmed by the way the old was incorporated into the new. The place was packed, and we loved the food. Tom, who has never been especially high on the place, was also impressed that night by what we had.
On this visit I was also impressed with the look of the place, which had taken on a worn look that resembled the old place.
I liked the feel here. Very much New Orleans, but not dumpy.
Wooden booths lined the walls, with tables interspersed, the small bar up front its own scene. There was a line to check in at the hostess stand, exactly as I would have expected.
We ordered 3 things. The braised brisket entree with mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts. Papa Tom’s shrimp and grits, and a classic at Ye Olde College Inn, the hamburger steak with mashed potatoes and spinach.
When I see the word braised I expect a confit-like piece of meat in nearly the state of debris. When the meat is definitely holding its shape I think it is not done well enough, but this brisket had the fortunately rare but unfortunate characteristic of being underdone and overdone at the same time. There was not a lot of gravy with the meat. The mashed potatoes were a little salty but otherwise good (I like salty.) And the Brussels sprouts blended in with the meat and gravy. They were softer than most, which I like. I wouldn’t call this an especially pretty plate of food, but it was tasty enough.
Papa Tom’s shrimp and grits caught my eye. I was surprised to see small shrimp, peeled, and part of a delicious cream sauce almost mixed with the grits. There was a slight undercurrent of sweet in this, or maybe it was a lack of salt, but this could have benefitted from a sprinkle of salt. The sauce was a basic cream sauce with Louisiana spices, and it too had a nice flavor. This was a generous portion of shrimp.
The hamburger steak is a longtime signature item here. It was a popular dish in the middle of the last century, in the earlier years of the restaurant. But its popularity lasted well into the 1980s and beyond. The idea is simple: make a long oval hamburger and cook it with sauteed onion, let it simmer in a gravy, and serve it with mashed potatoes. This version included sauteed spinach. There is something magical about a long-sauteed onion with beef. It imparts a sweetness to a gravy that is irresistible. The spinach was sauteed as well, with nothing on it. SImplicity, all this. Add three fried onion rings, medium thick cut, crispy.
Was it great? No, but it was good enough. And it’s easy to see why the place is full every night with patrons to share a meal over good conversation in a place so familiar. Exactly what this city is all about.