June 18, 2014 10:01
[title type="h6"]West End Park
"For many people Fitzgerald's is the only restaurant in town," Richard Collin once wrote. That was an accurate statement. Even people who thought that Fitzgerald's wasn't as good as it once was would always bring it up in any conversation about dining out, as if it were as essential to the local dining scene as Antoine's. Fitzgerald's must have been a fine place indeed at some time. Just not in my time.
Or the explanation could be that it was as perfect a slice of New Orleans local color as could be imagined. A tin-roofed building on stilts over Lake Pontchartrain, it was set out farther from the shore than any other West End restaurant. It had lake views in three directions; most other places had only one. You reached it by walking up a wooden pier, above which was an animated neon sign of a smiling fish flapping its tail.
Then you'd wait for a table. Sometimes for a long time. For most of its history, Fitzgerald's was a packed house, and its supplicants would put up with almost anything to get in there.
The menu was bigger than most others in West End, although in essence it was the same. Boiled and fried seafood accounted for most of the orders. The boiled crabs, shrimp, and crawfish were served ice cold. The fried seafood came out in huge platters that held a great deal of seafood on them. By today's standards of overfeeding—Deanie's, for example—it would not be considered supersized. But if you ordered soft-shell crabs, you always got at least two of them. Three full slices of buttered (was that butter, or oil from the seafood?) underlined all of these plates—for what purpose, no one has ever divined.
Fitzgerald's was highly regarded by its fans for its lobsters. These folks would repeat what the menu said, about how Caribbean lobsters were better than Maine lobsters because they weren't tough. (They were also half the price of Maine lobsters, but never mind.)
Like most West End restaurants, Fitzgerald's stuffed a lot of fish and shellfish with crabmeat stuffing. The making of crabmeat stuffing was an art at West End. It was two arts, in fact. One was to make it taste good. The other—more of interest to the owner than to the customer—was how to use the maximum amount of bread crumbs without making people say "Where's the crabmeat in this?" Fitzgerald's was a master of the latter skill.
Fitzgerald's, like all other restaurants at West End, suffered when the new pay parking lot came in the early 1980s. With each passing year, the crowd at Fitzgerald's got smaller and older. The big parties of a dozen people with lots of kids were much rarer.
Ownership changed at least twice. One of the latter proprietors was Andrew Jaeger, whose family had run seafood restaurants for decades—although never before at West End. He kicked some life back into the restaurant, but its reputation among younger diners was hopeless, and the older customers complained about every change. And the place was in pretty bad shape. Hurricane Georges hit the place so hard that it had to be torn down. And Katrina wiped out everything else at West End. It's as if it had never been there.