Three years ago, this column visited Ye Olde College Inn and didn't like what it found. Almost everything about the old-line Carrollton Section eatery--including the building--was changed beyond recognition. Worse, the new food was a step down from the old food, which had been no great shakes to start with. We gave it one star and left it for dead.
I am pleased and surprised to report now that Ye Newe College Inn has achieved the most impressive turnaround I've seen in long time. With hours, menu, and cooking practices like those of a gourmet bistro, it's become not just improved, but far better than at any time in its history.
In early 2011, Chef Brad McGehee--a San Francisco boy who'd done time at Peristyle, the Ritz-Carlton, and other top-end New Orleans restaurants--took over the kitchen with a vengeance. He's planted a block-long mini-farm for vegetables and herbs across the street from the restaurant, and is raising a variety of animals. All the eggs and hamburgers now come from the restaurant's own herds. The menu changed accordingly, with only a few vestiges of the past remaining.
Ye Olde College Inn is sacred ground for New Orleans diners--even though it bears no resemblance to the restaurant most people remember. The only culinary link to the past is the fried oyster loaf, which is kept alive only because the exterior sign touting it is a landmark.
The College Inn opened as a branch of the Pig Stand--a Texas-based barbecue joint--in 1933. It shortly evolved into a standard New Orleans neighborhood restaurant, with an enormous menu. After running it too long, the founding Rufin family sold the restaurant in 2003 to John Blancher--the owner of Rock 'n' Bowl, another local icon. Blancher and his son John Jr. set about updating the place. The project was jerked first to a halt then rudely ahead by Hurricane Katrina, which rendered the building unrepairable. The restaurant moved into an even older building the Blanchers owned next door. Between that and the drastic changes in the menu, the College Inn became a new restaurant in every way but its name and a few diehard customers.
The environment no longer goes with the food. It still looks like a neighborhood hangout, including the bunch of old guys drinking beer at the bar and a video poker closet. But these days a restaurant can't be too casual, so they will get away with such stuff. Actually, the premises are very cool--a single big room with a high, wood-beam ceiling, a skylight, concrete floors, lots of open space. The former schedule of being open almost any time people might be hungry has been replaced by a five-day, dinner-only routine.
The College Inn's most famous old dishes were the chicken-fried steak and the oyster loaf, both poor boys now. Do not get these even for nostalgic reasons. Seafood is actually the best thing they cook. The hamburger is terrific.