6535 River Road, Waggaman.
The word “plantation” conjures up a rich image in this part of the world. While many restaurants have used the word in their names, only two real plantation homes became major restaurants: Elmwood (see page 00) and Tchoupitoulas. They seemed to have a lot in common. Both boasted buildings dating back to the late 1700s. Both were on the river–almost across the river from one another, in fact. Their heydays as restaurants were in the 1960s and 1970s. Each had a style all its own, grand grounds full of enormous live oak trees, and staffs dominated by old black waiters and cooks who worked as if their clocks had been turned back fifty years.
Although it was much loved and had many stories to tell, Tchoupitoulas Plantation always lived in the shadow of the Elmwood. Its building was much less grand. It was a raised Creole cottage which, twice in its life, had been picked up and moved when the levees had to be relocated. And its food couldn’t quite match the goodness conjured up at Elmwood by Joe Marcello and Nick Mosca.
Tchoupitoulas (an Indian name that refers to the mighty river) first became a restaurant in 1963. It was already famous as the home base for Norma Wallace, for decades the most celebrated bordello madam in New Orleans. The stories of her bawdy establishments attached to Tchoupitoulas Plantation. Anywhere else, this might have been a negative, but in New Orleans it was considered local color.
Norma sold the restaurant in 1968, but by then the style was set. The menu was handwritten (and copied, in later years). It was much smaller than that of the grand restaurants of the time, with only about a dozen each of appetizers and entrees. All of it was unmistakably Creole, with an emphasis on seafood. Its kitchen was also good with duck and quail.
But some of the food was unique. The best dish in the house was oysters Tchoupitoulas, the bivalves awash in a dark roux-based sauce with red wine and a lot of A-1 Steak Sauce. It vaguely resembled oysters Foch at Antoine’s, but had a flavor all its own.
Richard Collin, the author of a series of restaurant guides in the 1970s and 1980s, let loose a classic line in one of his reviews of Tchoupitoulas Plantation. “It’s more a place than a restaurant,” he said, and added that the place was so pretty and so authentically a part of New Orleans history that it was worth the trip, inconsistencies and all.
That about sums it up. After threading your way through Avondale Shipyard and the Southern Pacific railyard, you’d pull off River Road into the gigantic pecans and oaks. Peacocks walked around the yard of the restaurant, unafraid of the people who came and went. You sat down in surprisingly small rooms in which no two lines met at a right angle. Then have a longer meal than you planned on (service was leisurely). You’d start with the oysters, and some pretty good daily special. You’d comment on the nude paintings left over from Norma Wallace’s hegemony here. And depart with a stronger connection with our city and its culture. It always felt good to eat at the Tchoupitoulas Plantation.
And you’d always feel it necessary to make the comparison with Elmwood. But Tchoupitoulas won a big contest. Elmwood long ago burned to the ground. Tchoupitoulas Plantation is still there, even though it hasn’t served a la carte in a long time. It’s a reception and party hall now, with the perfect atmosphere for weddings.