Stephen & Martin
Uptown: 4141 St. Charles Avenue
Stephen & Martin had two lives. The first was as a neighborhood café in the same category as Mandina’s or Pascal’s Manale. It was in an old building that seemed not to have been designed as a restaurant. It was a maze, and rare among New Orleans casual eateries in having both upstairs and downstairs dining rooms.
Its kitchen could send you anything from oysters Rockefeller to a poor boy sandwich to fried chicken. The prices were low, and the place was busy all the time, well into the wee hours of the morning. Stephen & Martin’s slogan was “The Next Best to Eating In Your Home,” which always sounded like faint praise.
Then, in 1975, the place was sold to the owners of Forty-One Forty-One, a sleek, chic new bar on the corner in front of Stephen & Martin’s. (It replaced a popular Uptown boite called Ched’s.) The new owners decided to chuck the whole Stephen & Martin’s concept. A deep renovation was designed by Charles Gresham (previous work: Brennan’s, Broussard’s, and Commander’s Palace). It created a lofty entrance atrium, flanked by a wine rack so tall the waiters had to climb to reach some of the bottles. The design was contemporary, with a suggestion of Art Deco.
Everything else about the restaurant was rejiggered too. Manager Tim Gannon hired younger, more casual waitresses, put in a real wine list, raised prices, and created a much more engaging, hip scene.
The chef was Ron Sciortino. He had worked at LeRuth’s, and for his mother’s catering company. He had a free hand and took advantage of it. The result was the forerunner of the gourmet Creole bistro, which would shortly become the most pervasive kind of restaurant in town. As it still is.
Chef Ronnie’s dishes weren’t wildly innovative by today’s standards. But they seemed that way then. He brushed up everything, gave it a new edge. I remember that the gumbo, the barbecue shrimp, the baked oysters, and the fish were more along the lines of what we would later eat at places like Mr. B’s (still three years from opening) than what we were being served in other restaurants.
It was a tremendous success, and for a few years it was tough to get a table. Then Sciortino left (he ultimately took over his family’s Sno-Wizard business, which he still runs). Gannon departed to open Bouligny. (In ten years, he would co-found the Outback Steakhouse).
A contingent of Manale’s expatriates came in and turned Stephen & Martin into a slightly polished version of that restaurant. When the bistros started popping up all over Uptown in the early 1980s, it was nearly forgotten that Stephen & Martin had been the prototype of the genre.
Stephen & Martin’s settled into a desultory groove. After a few changes of ownership it became the very dull Cannon’s. Which itself sold out to New Orleans Hamburger and Seafood Company. The end.
This is one of 122 reviews of fondly-remembered but extinct restaurants from Lost Restaurants Of New Orleans, just published by Pelican. It’s available in bookstores all around town, and full of photos, graphics, menus, and memorabilia.