The Beef Baron
Mid-City: 2501 Canal Street
Only the most focused diners with the best memories can recall much about the food at the Beef Baron. I had to dig up my old reviews to recall any menu details beyond the obvious one that the place was a steakhouse.
What caused this culinary amnesia was an atmospheric element that dominates all recollections of the Beef Baron. Along two walls, the dining room had enclosed, curtained booths, each with a table for two. Four people could have used them if they were willing to snuggle up close. But snuggling is for couples do, and the booths were made for them. They’d draw the curtains closed and dined–or did whatever else they pleased–out of sight.
Not even the waiters bothered these sequestered guests. A light switch inside turned on a little red light above the booth’s archway, to let the waiter know he was needed.
When the Beef Baron opened in the 1960s, this gimmick was building business for restaurants around the country. The idea seemed to have been hatched somewhere on the West Coast in the 1940s. Nor was it unique to the Beef Baron in New Orleans. Both Chris Steak House (before Ruth arrived) and the Crescent City Steak House also had the booths. (They are still in use at the Crescent City.) But they weren’t as elegant nor as private as those at the Beef Baron. The Beef Baron’s dining room was also much darker than, adding another level of mystery.
Speaking of mystery, why were the only three New Orleans restaurants with private booths all steakhouses, within a seven-block radius?
The Beef Baron’s steaks were not quite as exciting as those of its neighbors, but it always did serve USDA Prime beef. In a series of commercials starring Channel Four weatherman Don Westbrook, the point was made that all of the steaks at the Beef Baron were Prime. This came with the heavy suggestion that maybe this was not the case at the competing steak joints in the Private Booth District.
The two most memorable dishes at the Beef Baron involved onions. The onion soup was made in the style of Les Halles in Paris. A cap of melted cheese over a crouton covered the crock. In lieu of French bread, the Baron served crusty, hot onion rolls. It was almost worth going to the restaurant just for those.
The Beef Baron suffered from a downward trend in its neighborhood in the 1980s. Pan-American Life Insurance Company across the street moved to new headquarters. This hit the Baron hard. It closed, then reopened in the early 1990s in an unfortunate location on Oaklawn just river side of Veterans Boulevard–right behind a Burger King. It built the new place with many private booths, but they made them just a shade too small. The restaurant closed after a few years. Petra took over the space and ultimately pulled out the booths.
Meanwhile, back on Canal Street, a unique restaurateur named Dale Wamstad took over the old Beef Baron location. It was the second New Orleans location of his steakhouse, Del Frisco’s. That would not be long-term, but when he moved the concept to Dallas it was so popular that after a few years he sold the place to Lone Star for $23 million. There are Del Frisco’s all over the country now.
In the summer of 1967, I congratulated myself for being named interim manager of the Time Saver in River Ridge by having dinner at the Beef Baron, still then in its original location. No date; no booth. Thick filet mignon and all the trimmings. Total check: $6.78. This seemed like an unconscionable splurge. But I think I got my money’s worth of memories from it.