Extinct Restaurants

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Riverbend: 734 S. Carrollton Ave.(at Maple)

The Riverbend appeared when the New Orleans restaurant scene was pregnant. The Baby Boom generation was in its young adulthood, and was ready to start restaurants with more going on than hamburgers. But it found most serious New Orleans restaurants were too serious.

A few years later, the Uptown Creole bistro would be born, and that would change everything. But in the meantime, a few restaurants figured out that if a restaurant served good food and was fun–maybe even frivolous–it would attract a lot of these younger diners.

Peter Uddo was a Baby Boomer himself. He had a food connection: his family owned Uddo & Taormina, the company that evolved into Progresso Foods. He had a restaurant connection, too. He’d married into the Riccobono family, which owned the popular local chain of Buck Forty-Nine Steak Houses. The Buck Forty-Nine concept was running out of gas, particularly in its Uptown and French Quarter locations. And Joe Riccobono wanted to spin off his restaurants to the next generation.

Peter Uddo took over the Buck Forty-Nine on South Carrollton, a block from where the streetcar turned onto St. Charles Avenue. He changed its name to The Riverbend, pulled down the wild-west decor, and replaced it with flowery designs and lots of plants. It was what became known as a “fern restaurant.”

Ha also made the menu over–sort of. Actually, all he did was remove the steak emphasis. The Buck Forty-Nine always had a wide-ranging menu that was more like that of a neighborhood restaurant like Mandina’s than a steakhouse’s. He kept all of that, added more entree salads and a few other dishes aimed at women.

And then he reworded the menu. Peter’s greatest talent may have been his ability to create descriptions of straightforward dishes that made them sound like sheer ambrosia. I recall that his paragraph (it was no less than that, for every dish) about soft-shell crabs told of how rare they were (“these softies are hard to find!”), with the suggestion that anyone who was lucky enough to be there on the day when the crabs were available was in for the dinner of his life.

Actually, what he threw at you was a basic fried soft-shell crab, perhaps with a genuinely good light brown meuniere sauce of the Arnaud’s ilk. And they had them all the time. If they were out of season, they were frozen. Big deal.(Almost everybody did use frozen crabs and fish back then.)

None of that mattered. The food was good enough, if never brilliant. The prices were a shade above those of a neighborhood joint, but The Riverbend’s kicky environment obviated that, too.

The place was a tremendous hit. As the Buck Forty-Nine had been, The Riverbend was open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, seven days a week. It was always packed. Not just with young people, but with people of all ages. Turned out there were a lot of middle-aged folks who also felt challenged by formal dining. The Riverbend suited them perfectly.

As time went on, many of them became regular customers to an absurd degree. Peter Uddo told me that he could count on seeing some people three times a day, seven days a week.

Over the years, a few specialties emerged. The pancakes and breakfasts were always terrific. The salads were big and lush and good. The fried seafood was beyond reproach. They made a fine crawfish bisque. And a delicious skewer of charred filet mignon tips with a sweet-peppery sauce, steak Beaucage.

The Riverbend’s fortunes declined in the middle 1980s. The Uptown bistros pulled away the best of its customers. The three-meals-a-day old-timers went the way of all flesh. And fern restaurants went out of vogue. The Riverbend was sold, and operated as a restaurant only a little while longer before its place was taken by a drugstore.

Peter Uddo semi-retired, even though he was still a relatively young man. Peter’s younger brothers, Michael and Mark, opened a great restaurant in the French Quarter called the G&E Courtyard Grill; Peter turned up there now and then to help out. That was his last involvement with the restaurant business. He died about ten years ago, not quite fifty.

But his restaurant’s memory is immortal. It was so popular that its name transferred to the neighborhood, which is universally called Riverbend now. (That’s funny, because the river doesn’t actually bend there.) It’s one of the city’s densest collections of small restaurants.

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