The Restaurants Of West End Park

Written by Tom Fitzmorris September 01, 2020 11:24 in Dearly Departed



West End Park is a manmade rectangle of land on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, at the western end of the Lake Pontchartrain waterfront in New Orleans. From the 1830s on, it was the most popular getaway for people living in and around New Orleans.

Most would arrive by boat. The docks at West End were the busiest anywhere along the lakeshore. Later, people would come by rail, and much later by automobile—once the wetlands separating the city from West End had roads built through them (with great difficulty), in the 1920s.

They came for a variety of pleasures, beginning with the most innocuous ones of swimming, fishing, and lying around on the beach. The restaurants were good, specializing in the tremendous supply of unusually delicious seafood from the lake. As the clock ticked later, the nightclubs got rolling with their bands. Bawdier activities still were available for those looking to enjoy misbehaviors of the flesh, to whatever degree they wished.

West End became as much a part of New Orleans culture as any part of the city, with the possible exception of the French Quarter. For example, it was a prime incubator of jazz. Louis

Armstrong and Earl “Fatha” Hines recognized that with a 1928 recording called West End Blues—the first major jazz hit.

The longest-running restaurant at West End Park was Bruning’s. It opened in 1859, and persisted under the same family’s ownership all the way to August 29, 2005—the day Hurricane

Katrina hit. That day put an end to all the restaurants at West End Park. Because the park is outside levee protection—open to the lake and its potentially towering waves—it’s unlikely that

any restaurant will ever open there again.

If one does, it won’t be much like the restaurants for which West End was known. All were very casual, inexpensive places serving big platters of boiled, fried, broiled and stuffed seafood. The kind of building that could survive a major hurricane—and the cost of the insurance it would require—would result in prices that would make everyone who remembered the old days scream with pain.

When I started writing about restaurants in 1972, the West End Park’s eateries were near their peak. Ten of them lined up along the waterfront. Their menus were practically interchangeable. You could get a fried seafood platter, boiled shrimp, gumbo, stuffed crabs, and soft-shell crabs anywhere. The very best places featured the signature dish of West End: a fried whole flounder stuffed with crabmeat dressing. When Katrina hit, that dish almost became extinct.

The most desirable property a West End restaurant could have was a view of the lake—preferably derived by having the restaurant built over the lake’s waters, on stilts. But that introduced a few problems. If a restaurant were over the lake, it existed in a legal limbo called “squatter’s rights” with no title to the area beneath the building. What’s more, the Jefferson- Orleans parish line ran along the waterfront. West End Park—with its roads and parking lot—was entirely in Orleans Parish. But most of the restaurants were actually in Jefferson Parish, and paid their taxes to that entity.

This gave little incentive to the City of New Orleans to keep up the roads. It wasn’t a problem until it was decided in 1976 that the old parking lot—built with clamshells dredged from the lake, and full of big holes—needed to be rebuilt. The city paved it, but because the lot was used mostly by customers of Jefferson Parish businesses, they put a toll on it. It was only a dollar, but this infuriated just about everybody, who always parked there for free. Making matters worse still was that the city charged tax on the dollar—so you had to find another six cents to exit the lot. That one little thing was enough to keep a lot of potential diners from going to West End Park.

I wrote a survey of the West End Park dining scene for the Vieux Carre Courier in 1973. I returned to West End Park every four of five years ever after that. The trend was obvious and discouraging. With each new survey, the restaurants were fewer. The food remained good, although even that took a hit now and then. Limitations on seafood catch forced changed in the fried seafood platter. First, soft-shell crabs became an option instead of a standard. Speckled trout gave way to catfish for the fried fish component. West End took a particularly bad hit in 1998. Hurricane Georges ended the lives of a few restaurants, bringing the population of eateries to just four and ruining Bruning’s old building. The area never recovered from that blow. Katrina’s quietus left nothing standing anywhere in West End.

Many restaurants have come and gone in West End Park. We chose the middle 1970s as our snapshot moment. I wrote that first complete survey in 1973, and with only a couple of

exceptions the restaurants there then are remembered by many lovers of seafood.

We begin with the most famous of them all—Fitzgerald’s. Looking north from the parking lot, it was at high noon. From there we’ll go around the parking lot counter-clockwise.



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.


Pier Orleans

West End Park


Pier Orleans was one of several attempts by West End restaurateurs to rise above the seafood-platter level and serve a more ambitious menu in nicer surroundings. It was a brand-new restaurant over the water at the end of a long wooden ramp. The ramp was a nice place to hang with a glass of wine in the middle of a meal. The dining room had a great view of the lake, but the decor didn’t stop there. The food was reasonably good, but it had a marketing problem. The basic platters were well prepared, but the pile on the plate was lower than at the old places. The fancier dishes sported what was probably the best crabmeat stuffing at West End, full of lump meat (claw meat was the West End standard). All of the prices were higher than one was accustomed to seeing at West End. Some people liked the step up, but not enough to keep the place going more than five years.

I’ve always thought that if this place had come around in the mid-1980s, with food like what was being served at Mr. B’s or Clancy’s, it would have been a hit. And would have encouraged the West End restaurants to diversify and innovate.


The Bounty

West End Park


There was a spate of new restaurant construction along the west side of West End Park in the mid-1970s. The Bounty was the longest-lived of those. It was managed in its first eight years by John Fury, a longtime operator of neighborhood-style New Orleans restaurants. The menu he assembled at The Bounty included all the fried and broiled fish you could get everywhere in West End. But it went on to include a few Italian dishes of surprising goodness, excellent fried chicken, barbecue shrimp, and a full line of steaks.

The Bounty was a shade upscale of most of the restaurants at West End. No boiled seafood and all the mess that entails. It was the first restaurant at West End Park to pass the $10 barrier for a seafood platter, in 1982. It attracted a reasonably loyal clientele. But West End regulars who wanted a little variety probably thought the place overpriced. And the style of frying—a coating of seasoned flour was used on almost everything—struck some people as lacking excitement.

The food outlived the restaurant. John Fury left the Bounty to open Fury’s in Metairie in 1983. He’s still cooking most of what he did at The Bounty there, including stuffed whole flounders.


Maggie & Smitty’s Crabnett

West End Park


Most people who dined at Maggie & Smitty’s recall the cats first before the food or surroundings. Two or three felines were always on the premises, walking around through the open-air part of the dining room. If one of them thought he had a good shot, he’d jump on one of the picnic-style tables in search of fishy orts. But they usually didn’t have to put that much effort into their quest for food. Lots of the diners would throw the cats a piece of catfish.

Maggie & Smitty’s was the most informal and cheapest of all the restaurants at West End. Although some of this can be discounted because of the low prices, a sizeable number of

customers were of the opinion that Maggie & Smitty’s had some of the best fried seafood, and certainly the best boiled. They usually served boiled seafood hot—not a common practice in

West End or anywhere else in town.

It was not the cleanest place in the world. The indoor dining room was more presentable for those with an aversion to flies and cats. But hardly anybody ever ate in there. The regulars thought of the alfresco aspect of Maggie & Smitty’s as the main draw.

After Hurricane Georges, Bruning’s considered moving at least part of its operation into Maggie & Smitty’s, and may have done so. But it never seemed to change until it finally closed, more a victim of the decline of West End than anything else.


Pique’s Wharf

West End Park



Willie G’s

West End Park


The handsomest of all the new restaurants along the west side of West End Park, Pique’s Wharf tried to go full-tilt gourmet, but with a style that reminded one more of places like Houlihan’s. The hand-drawn menu was on an enormous card that cut off communications among the diners at a table while they read the thing. Which took awhile. Not only were many dishes on it, but a majority were things that required explanations. How else to find out what “oysters Smokey Mary” were like? The menu also sported a byzantine set of symbols that told which dishes were spicy, which were gourmet, and which were house specialties. And, as if that weren’t enough, advertising for outside businesses ran along the perimeter.

It was all a bit too much to take in. If the food had been good, it might have been worth it. But it always seemed to me to have been conceived by someone who had read about fine dining

but not actually experienced it—let alone cooked it. A little too creative.

After Pique’s closed, the good-looking space with its lake view became Willie G’s. The seafood platters were as generous as those at Bruning’s and Fitzgerald’s, but better. Nothing was ever overcooked or tepid; it all seemed to be fried to order. I was so impressed that I talked about it a lot on my new radio talk show. The business didn’t boom, but Willie G’s seemed to be doing

pretty well.

Then one of the owners had what he thought was a brilliant idea. Unlike most other seafood-loving cities, New Orleans had never had a steamed-seafood restaurant. Willie G’s rebuilt its kitchen to that end, and one day swapped out the fried for the steamed.

It was a disaster. You have to grow up with steamed seafood to like it. Nobody around here had. You also need to like seafood that tends to the mild side of the flavor spectrum. (Some of it can be spicy, but not much.) And you have to get over the idea that food is best served piping hot—which steamed seafood often is not. It would not be the last time a seafood steamery opened with a bang and died with a whimper. (Visko’s, which also tried steaming seafood, was brought down by it.)

They put the fried stuff back, but the momentum was lost. I don’t think Willie G’s lasted out the year. It closed, and the building sat unused for awhile. One night, it had a big fire, leaving only the stilts poking out of the water.



West End Park


Bruning’s saw the whole history of West End Park from the big windows of its big house over the lake. It seemed timeless. It may have even been definitive. The menu at Bruning’s contained everything that a meal in West End Park would be expected to include, and almost nothing else. Boiled and fried seafood, stuffed everything, gumbo, whole fried or broiled flounder, and fried chicken—that about covered it.

Bruning’s style of the cooking was from another time. The gumbo recipe, for example, had no evidence of the trend toward a very thick broth. It was light but very flavorful. One of its most distinctive entrees was called a crab chop. This was crabmeat dressing made into the shape (roughly) of a pork chop, and fried. An oddly shaped crab cake, is what it was.

You entered through a room that could have been used to shoot a movie set in the Old West, with an enormous old bar in the darkest wood imaginable. A few antique arcade machines stood here and there. You couldn’t figure out whether they worked or not. That led into the dining room, whose many large windows left no doubt that you were in Lake Pontchartrain at the extremity of New Orleans. There was the outflowing end of the 17th Street Canal, at the other end of which the world’s largest drainage pumping station sucked most of New Orleans dry. (Most of the time, anyway.) A footbridge crossed the canal for those wanting to take a walk to Bucktown after dinner. On a sort of peninsula was a Victorian house that looked out of place until you found out that it was where the third-generation owner of Bruning’s lived. Her grandson, Sam Urrate, managed the restaurant. Usually, restaurants this old take on airs about themselves, become crotchety, and raise their prices. None of that was ever true of Bruning’s, which remained easygoing and inexpensive.

The dining room—always full—had a West End oddity. Hanging on an interior wall was an old wash basin, with a towel rack above it. It looked as if it had been placed on the wrong side

of a bathroom wall. It was there for you to wash up before and after you plowed through a pile of boiled crabs, shrimp, or crawfish.

Bruning’s was a happy family place for a lot of people. How many became known after Hurricane Georges in 1998. Although Bruning’s had survived many hurricanes, this one seemed to have it in for the old place. It filled Lake Pontchartrain with water eight to ten feet higher than normal. The winds blew waves high enough to wash up with great force beneath anything they could reach. They reached the underside of Bruning’s and did terrible damage. Sam Urrate moved the restaurant to a building he owned on the land in front of Bruning’s, and set about fixing the old place. But the insurance industry said that this was flood damage, not wind damage. But how does a building that’s always standing in water get flood insurance? Answer: It can’t. The money never came. Bruning’s original building would never be repaired. The best they could do was to remove the historic bar, the arcade machines, and some other things.

Seven years later, Katrina’s waves were twice as high as Georges’s. They washed over West End Park and left no building standing. Not even the pilings that once supported all these restaurants remained. And Sam Urrate’s grandmother’s Victorian house was gone. A couple of months after Katrina, Sam told me that he wanted to reopen Bruning’s, either at West End or elsewhere. That was the last I heard from him. We can’t blame him. But we can hope, can’t we?


Papa Rosselli’s

West End Park


Papa Rosselli’s was the most non-conforming restaurant in West End Park. It stood in front of Bruning’s on dry land. The few windows only gave views of other restaurants. And although you could get a good fried seafood platter there, it was more likely that you’d eat Italian. Not because the Italian food was so much better than the seafood—it wasn’t. But. . . well, what’s this place doing here if not to serve spaghetti and meatballs?

Joe David III—publisher of New Orleans Magazine during my tenure as editor—described the interior of Papa Rosselli’s perfectly as “Early Christmas Tree”. Big Christmas tree lights were strung up on the walls all around. All year long. This was the first sign of many that this was a place that didn’t take itself too seriously. So you felt no hesitation about starting with a dozen raw oysters, then following it with lasagna and Chianti. (Between the Christmas tree lights were more than a few wicker-covered Chianti fiascos.) What you didn’t do at Papa Rosselli’s was go in a hurry. I sometimes got the feeling that only one person was in the kitchen and one in the dining room. This had an advantage, though. If you were on a date, there were few interruptions. This slightly goofy place may have been the most romantic restaurant West End.



West End Park


Swanson’s was, with Fontana’s and Fitzgerald’s, a member of the postwar expansion of the restaurant community on West End Park. It came along at a propitious time for restaurants. Not only were there lots of new customers as the economy expanded, but Jefferson Parish had legalized gambling. Swanson’s sat athwart the parish line, which was clearly marked on the floor. On one side of the line, you ate and drank. On the other, you played slot machines.

Swanson’s had at least three lives, opening and closing with different owners (although usually with some connection to the original Swanson family). When I first dined there in the

mid-1970s, it served a mix of seafood and Italian food, and I got the impression that the management wasn’t at the top of its game.

A few years later, it was taken over by a young guy named Danny Meyer (not the New York restaurateur). He made Swanson’s into the best seafood house at West End. There was a

fine edge on everything they did, but he introduced a great new idea: he served boiled seafood steaming hot. That’s still not often seen. Boiled seafood needs to be chilled for food-safety reasons, but there’s nothing that says you couldn’t give it a quick dip in the boiling pot before serving it. Danny did that, and everybody went wild over it.

But then, still in his thirties, Danny died. Swanson’s kept going, but it wasn’t the same, and it closed. It would open and close once more before Katrina came to take it away.



West End Park


Fontana’s was on dry land in a spartan building. That fact could be used to separate the people who were more interested in food than environment. Those who insisted that no other West End restaurant could match Fontana’s seafood were difficult to talk into going to Fitzgerald’s or even Bruning’s, no matter how much nicer the views were. The people at Fontana’s seemed to be into seafood more than their competitors. They also ran a retail seafood operation, and were intimately connected with the markets every day. This worked wonders on their food. You never got secondary cuts of fish here. I remember in particular a fried trout fillet so large that if had not been in my twenties and hungry, I wouldn’t have been able to finish it. Not just big, though, but well-seasoned, hot, crisp, and meaty. This resonated with the guys going out to dinner. All you had to do was talk the girls into it. One meal was usually all it would take to convert them. Despite this, Fontana’s was always a favorite place to start the evening if you were on a date, and were thinking about driving out to The Point (one of great necking venues in the 1970s and before, at the end of the West End breakwater).



West End Park


Seymour’s distinction among its fellow West End Park restaurants had nothing to do with food, but it brought a certain number of customers anyway. It was the only eatery out there with its own parking lot. On the other hand, it didn’t feel a lot like West End. The building was modern and surrounded by windows. But there was nothing much to look at except the big oak trees outside. It was farther from the water than any other West End place.

Seymour’s added to its appeal by letting its menu extend beyond fried platters. They got a little bit into saucing. But mainly the menu was like the one you'd find at Mandina’s today. Including the daily specials: red beans, a few Italian dishes, and steaks. Not many people remember Seymour’s, but I always found it better than I expected it to be. 

Seymour’s at West End was the second restaurant under that name. For a time in the late 1960s it was a neighborhood restaurant on North Carrollton Avenue near Canal. The next generation of the family has a small seafood restaurant on Sauve Road at Hickory at the northern tip of Harahan. Neither of those were quite as good as the first restaurant you came to when you entered West End Park.