We may see the first crawfish of the year in the coming weeks (don't hold your breath; mudbugs are unpredictable). Whenever I hear that news, my mind immediately goes to the Bon Ton, the first New Orleans restaurant to make a major specialty of crawfish. The old CBD standby also comes to mind when the weather gets cold, because of the memory of dinner I had there on a blustery night between Thanksgiving and New Year back in a pivotal time in my life. The Bon Ton is the kind of place that memories are made of, mainly because it's one of the last of its kind. And still good in its specialties.
It's hard to believe now, but there was a time when crawfish was almost entirely unavailable in New Orleans restaurants. The Bon Ton--long a good place for eating all the dishes made with the mudbugs--was the first restaurant in town to serve unambiguously Cajun food, instead of the related but subtly different Creole cooking in every other local restaurant. After over a half-century, the same old-fashioned style of Cajun cooking is still in place, changeless and good.
The Bon Ton opened in the mid-1920s across the street from where it is now. It was a standard French-Creole restaurant until the 1950s, when Raceland citizens Alvin and Alzina Pierce bought the restaurant. They shifted the kitchen almost entirely to the cooking of Acadiana. This won the restaurant tremendous national acclaim, keeping it packed lunch and dinner, and popular enough that the Bon Ton could remain closed on Saturdays (as it still is).
Taking up the entire bottom floor of an 1840s building, the dining room is a tall, bright space, with bog windows on two sides and brick walls on the other. The red-checked tablecloths and the homey style of the waitresses--many of whom have worked her for decades--gives the place a decided informality. Despite that, many of the lunch customers are in jacket and tie.
Make a reservation for lunch, which gets crowded by noon and usually stays that way. Be aware that in many ways this restaurant is a throwback to a time of simpler cooking and service, and that some practices are long out of vogue. Begin with a rum Ramsey, the house cocktail. It predates the Pierce era, and is a kind of sour.