Red Onion
Metairie: 2700 Edenborn

Fine-dining restaurants were slow to arrive in Metairie. In the 1960s and earlier, if you wanted to dine out in that prosperous, populous suburb, your choices were Elmwood Plantation, Sclafani’s, and the House of Lee. From there the pickings dropped to bad chain steakhouses or neighborhood cafés. If those wouldn’t do, you went to the French Quarter.

By 1970, however, it was clear that so many people with good disposable incomes lived in Metairie that a real restaurant might make it. The first such ventures met with mixed luck. La Riviera (1972) and Sal & Sam’s (1971) did well enough to remain long-term. (Although both are gone now.) La Charcuterie (1971) and Christian’s (1973) did less well. (The former closed, and the latter moved to Mid-City.)

Suddenly in 1976, a spate of excellent new places opened in the Veterans Boulevard corridor. The Red Onion was the first of those, led by a partnership that included Frank Occhipinti and Frank Grimoskas–two interesting and skillful restaurateurs. They were already well known for a restaurant in the Quality Inn on Tulane Avenue. Occhipinti’s fingerprints were all over the place, in restaurants ranging from Airline Highway to Slidell to Shreveport.

The partners built a large new building along the lines of Elmwood Plantation. It wasn’t a great location, being a block or two off the main dragm in the commercial area between Veterans and I-10. It wasn’t on the way to anything else–a fact that still plagues restaurants and businesses in that section.

However, the Red Onion proved enough of a draw that it was always packed. The crowd maxed out at lunch, when not only were all the dining rooms full, but the bar, too. The people were the movers and shakers of East Jefferson. Which, of course, included no small number of people who could be called cronies.

That brought in even more people, who wanted for various reasons to be in the same place as the powerful. The Red Onion was so busy that after just a few years it added a large dining room and more parking. Even those remained full.

The management, not bound by downtown rules, implemented all sorts of unconventional services. The Red Onion was the first restaurant to stage lunchtime fashion showd, for example. (Not the lingerie shows that came a decade later in bars, but classy women’s wear.) At night, they had live music in the lounge, with a pianist who went by the name of Rosario. (He later became one of the Red Onion’s owners.)

In the evening, the Red Onion was as elegant as any restaurant in the French Quarter. The dining room was handsomely appointed, spacious, and quiet. The kitchen kept right up with the expectations created by the ambience. The chef was Muse Benjamin, who’d worked a long time at Delmonico before joining Frank Occhipinti at the Quality Inn. Chef Ben, as everybody called him, was an old-school Creole chef who knew it all.

He and Occhipinti assembled a menu that blended Creole-French restaurant dishes (oysters Rockefeller, turtle soup, trout amandine, rack of lamb) with Creole-Italian classics (oysters Mosca, chicken with artichokes, veal Francesca, barbecue shrimp). This sort of offering would be copied by enough other restaurants that I came up with a name for it: Suburban Creole.

The Red Onion’s food was delicious and well-served. But what fired its extreme popularity was that the menu prices were significantly lower than what people were accustomed to paying in the French Quarter. This resonated with customers, who for some reason have the idea that a dish served in the suburbs should be cheaper than exactly the same dish in a comparable restaurant in the city. Occhipinti played to that absurdity in all the other restaurants he ran over the years). At lunch, his lunch prices seemed like mistakes.

Despite that, it was all good, original eating. They gussied up everything a bit more than we were used to seeing in those days, fleshing out plates with more (and less common) vegetables than one ordinarily saw. They had a great salad made with fresh asparagus and artichokes (both uncommon in restaurants in those days) and a unique, peppery, white house dressing that I’ve never been able to duplicate.

Other stuff: Prime steaks. Maine lobster (as yet uncommon back then). And some really fine veal and seafood dishes that would be called Northern Italian nowadays.

The Red Onion had a shakeup in 1981. Occhipinti was forced out, and within a year opened a new restaurant that looked almost exactly like the Red Onion a block away. Chef Ben went with Occhipinti, and resumed cooking the Red Onion food, but better than the Red Onion. Occhipinti opened new house accounts for those who’d run up unacceptably large balances at the Red Onion.

The Red Onion’s new owners held on for a few years. The restaurant’s offerings didn’t decline tremendously, but the spirit of the place had been ripped out. Then came a downturn in the oil industry, the explosion of hip bistros Uptown, and the opening of many more upscale restaurants in Metairie (Augie’s, Romanoff’s, Chehardy’s, Andrea’s, and Timothy’s, among others). It finally closed in 1989.

But in its heyday the Red Onion was a trendsetter. The Suburban Creole legacy lives on in places like Austin’s, Cypress, Porter & Luke’s, and the Peppermill.

11 Readers Commented

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  1. Frank Occhipinti jr on June 6, 2014

    Tom. Joe Segreto had nothing to do w Red Onion.His brother Bill worked ther for a short time.My father had several rests before Quality Inn. His first was when he was 15 in the 4-a’s casino on airline. There were rests in town and country on airline and in Schreveport. Rest @the first Holiday Inn in Gentilly that he owned. Thanks Tom for remembering us.Frank Jr

    • Tom Fitzmorris on June 8, 2014

      Thanks for the info, Frank. Sometimes the best way to find out facts for a historical article is to publish the best information one can find, then wait for the people who were involved–not all of whom are easily found–to fill in the cracks.

      Tastefully yours,
      Tom Fitzmorris

      • Mark Schorr on November 5, 2015

        Tom, I think the Red Onion opened in 1975 (not 1976). I’, pretty sure that I was 16 when I started working as a bus boy at the Red Onion in the winter-early spring of 1975. Anyway, I really enjoyed your article. And I’d like to read more about other NO restaurants/restauranteurs around that time. Good job. -Mark Schorr

    • Mark Schorr on November 4, 2015

      Frankie or Tom (?):
      Hey, I really enjoyed Tom’s summary of the history of the Red Onion, and Frank Jr’s comments When I was 16-18, I worked on/off at the Red Onion (La Cipolla [or Chipolla] Rossa was written on the restaurant’s beautiful pewter base plates [many customers stole them…]) – busboy and valet car attendant. It was a unique experience for a young guy. Frank Occhipinti Jr. (Frankie) and the late Bill Segreto were my bosses. They were both great guys. Frankie wrote a me a good letter of recommendation, which helped me secure a restaurant job in the Alexandria, VA area (Tom Sarris’ Orleans House) when I was 16 and spending the summer with my father in 1975.
      -Mark Schorr

  2. david on June 7, 2014

    The history aspect of New Orleans cuisine is very interesting. Thanks for the Red Onion article and please do more like it!

    • Tom Fitzmorris on June 8, 2014

      If you liked that, you may be interested in looking at all the other articles in the Extinct Restaurants series. In the main menu near the top of the page, click on Sides, then Extinct Restaurants. You’ll find another 150 lost eateries there.

      Tastefully yours,
      Tom Fitzmorris

  3. Patricia Domino on June 8, 2014

    Tom please contact me. I would like to correct and give you more info about my family’s “extinct” restaurant, Domino’s Pizzeria & Italian Specialties. I was so happy to see someone giving my family the credit we deserve for bringing pizza to New Orleans! Thank you so much. Looking forward to hearing from you,, Patricia & Mary Domino (Mrs. Sam Domino)

  4. Abrandt on January 7, 2016

    What was the white wine served in small bottles at the red onion??

  5. Ladonna on March 30, 2016

    joyed myself so much at the Quality Inn on Tulane Avenue I enjoy the atmosphere and the people who became my friends and enjoyed Rosario music as he played the organ that I decided to get married on top the piano bar if Rosario reads this he’ll know who this is thank you Rosario for 2001 Space Odyssey Ladonna

  6. I haunted the Red Onion Between 1975-1978. Wonderful crowd, and memories of my MBA graduation dinner, many nights listening to Rosario sing and play, and the blind taste test Steve (Maitre’d) set up at the bar for my Tulane U marketing class team to judge bourbons and determine why Old Grandad was losing market share! Happy days.