THE 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.