Bywater: 3200 St. Claude Ave.
Regular customers of Restaurant Mandich were always amused to hear newcomers call the place a "discovery." That's inevitably what most restaurant writers (including me, in my first review of the place in 1977) called the restaurant. And whenever someone called my radio show about Mandich, I knew he would call it a great restaurant nobody knows about.
But how could a place that opened in 1922 and remained consistently popular until Katrina be considered anybody's special secret?
Here's how: by the time us Baby Boomers found out about Mandich, there were few restaurants of its kind left in New Orleans. And its location in the Ninth Ward--not an area with many other restaurants, let alone classy ones with great, carefully-cooked food--was unlikely.
In the years after World War I, a wave of Croatian immigrants arrived in the bays and bayous of Plaquemines Parish, where they resumed their lifelong occupations as fishermen and oystermen. Some wound up in New Orleans, where in the 1920s and 1930s they opened a disproportionate number of new restaurants. Among the best known were Gentilich's, Uglesich's, Tortorich's (later Tortorici's), and Zibilich's, plus just as many restaurants whose owners' names ended in the telltale "-ich": Chris Steak House (Matulich), Bozo's (Vodonavich), and Crescent City Steak House (Vojkovich).
John Mandich opened his restaurant in 1922. His customer base was strong: he was a few blocks away from the busiest part of the port, where a typical day for the shipping industry moguls began in the pre-dawn hours and ended around one in the afternoon. Then they went out to dinner. Not lunch, but dinner. These, plus a fair number of longshoremen, constituted the clientele.
Lloyd English came into the business as a partner a few years later, and bought out Mandich in 1939. It was the Depression, and keeping the restaurant going was nothing but work for the Englishes. World War II was good for them--lots of action on the wharves then. By the 1950s, the restaurant was prosperous, and a social center for the mostly middle-class residents of the neighborhood.
Lloyd English Jr. came in during the 1950s, and took over the management of Mandich from his parents in 1959. He expanded the restaurant to its final size, and renovated the dining rooms into as fancy a place as any other neighborhood restaurant in the city. The name "Restaurant Mandich" appeared in neon across the new Mansard roof. Lloyd Jr. persuaded his new bride Joel to take over the cooking. She did, and didn't quit until the restaurant closed. Neither did he. His main station was in the bar, where his customers looked forward to having a drink or two with him before dinner. I never once went to Mandich without seeing Lloyd standing there.
The flight to the suburbs had begun, and it wasn't long before Mandich settled into an odd schedule remembered by its regulars as well as they recall the food: Lunch Tuesday through Friday, dinner Friday and Saturday only. They still had a lot of management types from the docks coming in for big dinners at lunchtime, but they had poor boys, too.
In his first review in the States-Item in 1983, critic Gene Bourg called Mandich a special secret restaurant, and "the Galatoire's of the Ninth Ward." That captured the spirit of the place well. The menu seemed to be familiar enough. But everything--from the red bean soup to the fried seafood to the filet mignon--was cooked with more attention to detail than one was accustomed to finding in a moderately priced, casual restaurant like this one.
You started with a soup, unless you didn't know how good Joel made them. The marinated crab claws, fried calamari, shrimp remoulade, and crab cakes were other good starters. But the signature appetizer was the oysters bordelaise, whose sauce was a mildly garlicky version of the brown, buttery New Orleans-style meuniere sauce. That dish lingers in memory so strongly that Jo Ann Clevenger at the Upperline has a similar dish called oysters St. Claude, with full credit given to Mandich for the idea.
Joel cooked all kinds of New Orleans food, as well as a bit of Italian. But her most distinctive dishes were those denoted as "broiled with a crisp breading." Crisp, buttery breading, she should have said. This was the essence of trout Mandich, the signature dish of the restaurant, made with generous fillets of fresh speckled trout, a wonderful crust and a slow of lemon butter. It almost seemed panneed, but wasn't. Simple, really, but unique.
Joel cooked lots of good specials. The roast duck with sweet potato sauce was a real original. The tall filet mignon was crusty and juicy. For dessert you had an extraordinary, cinnamony bread pudding.
Two feet of Katrina flooding brought an end to forty-six years of great food in a delightfully retro restaurant. Joel and Lloyd decided that was the perfect moment to retire. And that was that. They sold the building, and it's now a small grocery store.
Cartoon from The New Orleans Menu, Vol. 1, No. 1, January 3, 1977. Badly drawn by the author.