Written by Tom Fitzmorris July 13, 2011 17:23 in

Extinct Restaurants

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Mandeville: 2025 Lakeshore Drive

The most colorful exemplar of the grand New Orleans Creole lifestyle in the early 1800s was Bernard de Marigny de Mandeville. In his glory years, Marigny built a second residence on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain--a thirty-mile sail from his main digs in the Faubourg Marigny.

Many other New Orleanians followed Marigny's lead and built their own summer and weekend homes in the town that grew around his place. Others took steamboats across the lake for the day. The resort town of Mandeville incorporated in 1840.

In 1847, a two-story Greek revival plantation home went up on the lakefront, on Lot #1 in Marigny's 1834 town plan. In 1885, the prominent Bechac family opened a restaurant in the building. For most of its history, Bechac's served the New Orleans escapees with food a lot like what could be found in the restaurants at home. It was less formal and had a simpler menu, dominated by seafood pulled out of the lake across the street.

Bechac's flavors were unambiguously Creole. You began with shrimp remoulade, baked oysters, turtle soup, or gumbo. The many configurations of fried seafood platters were far and away the most popular entrees. Broiled fish, sometimes with sauces but usually not, were also popular. (This was before grilled fish became popular.) My first review of Bechac's in 1974 expressed some dismay at the prices, which seemed right for so scenic an ambience, but more than a little high for fried seafood. I thought it was less good than, say, the West End Park average. That's about what I remember from succeeding visits.

But people who lived (full-or part-time) in Mandeville had few restaurants of significance, and if you wanted a nice evening out, you went to Bechac's, where at least you know the view of the lake would be marvelous.

One certainly was likely to meet just about anyone there. Novelist Walker Percy was part of a group called "The Sons and Daughters of the Apocalypse" that had lunch at Bechac's every Thursday in the 1970s and 1980s. On one of my dinners, I saw Willie and Anna May Maylie, the owners of Maylie's on Poydras. Their weekend house was a few blocks away, and where else could they go?

The main dining room was on the ground floor, with its low ceiling and small windows. Less often, for some reason, the much more spacious second-floor rooms served. All were served by a well-dressed, all-black staff whose style was reminiscent of Pullman dining-car waiters. Or the waiters at the Elmwood Plantation. Or even the Camellia Grill.

Paradoxically, the old Bechac's faded and then closed when St. Tammany Parish began to grow explosively in the 1980s and onward. Most newcomers thought nothing of crossing the lake to dine, since they were probably commuting to work anyway. At the same time, many new restaurants opened in the area, lessening the captive-clientele appeal of Bechac's.

The Bechac family still owns the building, but has been leasing it to others since the 1990s. Even though most of these have been quite good (notably Pat Gallagher's Camelia [sic] Beach House and Alex Patout's Cajun-flavored interregnum), the tenants came nowhere close to matching Bechac's century. The current restaurant is the Lake House, with an ambitious new Creole menu and the same old great sunsets.