Wednesday, December 2, 2015.
The Pre-Winter Chill Dinner @ Bon-Ton Café.
My calendar is infamously full of observances that have meaning to me alone. Today's is a movable feast, and recalls a combination high-and-low point in my career.
It was a cold Friday evening in mid-December. A couple of months before, I became the editor of New Orleans Magazine, a great break in my young (I was only twenty-three) journalistic career. I was putting in long hours not only in reworking the magazine, but learning on the job. The office and the neighborhood (Gravier between Magazine and Camp) had long since emptied out for the day. In 1974, this was strictly an industrial area, and after the workers knocked off, the whole area was deserted
And there I was, walking up empty Magazine Street, the temperature dropping as the winds began to blow litter and dirt around. It was chilly in every sense of the word.
Then I felt some warmth against my cheek. A gas lamp. Then another one, the pair illuminating the entrance of the Bon Ton Café. It was the favorite restaurant of Joe David III, the owner of New Orleans Magazine. He and I dined there frequently, so I knew what I would find inside. More warmth. Comforting food with a Cajun touch. It was the perfect place for dinner that night. I don't remember what I ate, but whatever it was left a lasting impression.
I walked back out onto the dark, unpopulated street, with three more blocks between my car and me. But somehow it didn't feel so forbidding. I remember whistling as I walked.
The radio station is across the street from the Bon Ton. And every year, on the first cold weather of December, I return to the restaurant to recall the warmth. I get the Christmas spirit then and there. And I smile from the time I feel that first chilly wind all the way through dinner. Everybody in the place seems to know why I am there. Or am I just imagining that?
Tonight I start with fried crawfish tails and catfish fingers. Then a shrimp remoulade salad. (They need to pick their lettuces more carefully.) And then oysters Alvin, named for Al Pierce, who ran the restaurant from the 1950s until he retired. His nephew Wayne Pierce took over, with a philosophy of changing nothing, especially the recipes and the kitchen staff.
Oysters Alvin are fried and sauced with a variation on the brown meuniere we find around town. A pile of only slightly dirty rice is in the center of the plate, with oysters all the way around it. The waitress says that I had this last year, too. I don't remember.
Bread pudding, of course. The Bon Ton is famous for that. Coffee. The place fills up with people in town for a convention of workboat operators. They seem happy, too.
Wayne Pierce sits with me for awhile. He is unaware that his restaurant has moved from fourth place in terms of venerability among New Orleans restaurants to third. A few weeks ago, Commander's Palace announced that a study of real estate records in the late 1800s revealed that while the building that encloses Commander's was there in 1880--the year the restaurant has always given as it founding--it wasn't a restaurant until 1893.
But the Bon Ton also had some old evidence turn up in recent years, in an original copy of a newspaper. It shows clearly that the Bon Ton was open at least by 1887.
So here is the 1800s Club as of today:
Bon Ton Café (1887, perhaps earlier)
Commander's Palace (1893)
Wayne was surprised and pleased to learn this.
I released my table to the waiting workboat guys, who will spend more money than I will. Somehow, I know I will be here next year at this same time. That's the first good news for the New Year.
Bon Ton Cafe. CBD: 401 Magazine. 504-524-3386.