The Diner At Krauss
CBD: 1201 Canal.
Like most other big department stores on Canal Street, the long-running, locally-owned Krauss had a restaurant where its customers could take a break from their shopping without having to leave the store. It was probably more important to Krauss than to the other stores, since it was on the other side of Basin Street, away from the other stores. If you left Krauss, you were not likely to circle back.
Krauss’s original grill was on the second floor. It was the kind of place where you’d eat a grilled cheese sandwich with fries and a cherry Coke at your mother’s elbow. That’s my 1950s recollection of it, anyway. I also remember that it–like the rest of the store–felt like a time warp, with Art Deco everything. Krauss opened in 1903, and it was famous for not changing much.
By the 1990s, the Canal Street shopping habit was all but gone. All the great stores had closed–Maison Blanche, Holmes, Godchaux, Leonard Krower, Porter-Stevens, Marks Isaacs, all of them. Krauss alone survived, but it was on its last legs. Aging regular customers, many of whom showed up often for coffee or a sandwich in the grill, kept it barely going.
Then the store’s management made a bold move. It leased the grill to a young local chef named Ken Mills. There was a resurgence of interest in those days in “soul food.” (I put the term in quotes because there’s little difference between soul food and Creole food. Our common taste unites all Orleanians.) Ken thought that would be perfect for Krauss, which always had a high percentage of African-American customers.
He opened as The Diner At Krauss. He kept the Deco look, the zigzagging counter separating the customers on their stools from the lively cooks and waiters, who took a jazzy approach to their jobs. The scene was almost identical to that of the Camellia Grill.
Chef Ken opened his diner with enthusiasm and ambitiousness. He used nouvelle-cuisine touches–most notably the oversized, colorful china on which the piles of food were served.
But the food was old-style Creole home cooking. I told Mills once that his gumbo tasted exactly like my mother’s–high praise from my lips. He replied, “Everybody tells me that.” A sign in back of the counter implored you to try that gumbo. It was a basic chicken-andouille job, but also contained lots of little shrimp and pieces of crabmeat. It was old style in having a much lighter (but no less tasty) broth than had become the vogue.
Stewed chicken was another specialty, on the menu all the time with brown gravy and rice or smothered potatoes. Along the same lines were beef stew over rice (almost unique to New Orleans), smothered pork chops, hamburger steak.
Most appealing of all Ken’s pot cooking was his crawfish etouffee. It was made with a brown roux and lots of green onions, served uniquely with stuffed crawfish heads. So, really, it was more a bisque than an etouffee, but I may be the only person who ever gave that a second thought.
The Diner at Krauss served the essentials of a department store lunch counter: salads and sandwiches. The salads were attractively served on big platters with lots of garnish. Like everything here, the dressings were house-made. So too for the poor boy sandwiches, roast beef was cooking back there somewhere, with a lot of garlic and a fine gravy. They had fried shrimp and oyster loaves on hot, buttered, toasted French bread. Burgers were also made from scratch and grilled to order.
Good desserts: sweet potato pie, pecan pie, and cheesecake with raspberries. It was a great place to have a satisfying meal downtown in a hurry, in an environment that whisked you back a few years. It even attracted some customers under 60, which was an astounding achievement for Krauss in those days.
Unfortunately, the Diner couldn’t turn the store around. Krauss closed for good in 1997, and the Diner with it. Ken relocated his operation to a spiffy office building on Poydras Street across from the Superdome. It was every bit as good as his first effort, but never caught on. I’ve lost track of Ken Mills, but not the memories of his heroic last stand at Krauss.