Toney’s Spaghetti House
French Quarter: 212 Bourbon (across from Galatoire’s)
No restaurant in New Orleans now is comparable to Toney’s Spaghetti House in its heyday. From the late 1940s through the early 1970s, when Bourbon Street was in its prime. Most customers were still local people, out for an evening in the many restaurants and jazz clubs along the strip. If they were out late, Toney’s might be the last stop, for a pizza or a plate of spaghetti (nobody called it “pasta” then).
Anthony Bonomolo founded Toney’s during the Depression, in a small space where most of the seating was at a counter. The restaurant tripled its size after the war. That’s also when it gained its distinctive look: brightly lit, utilitarian, the walls covered with photos of notables (and no small number of unknowns) who either visited or worked on Bourbon Street.
And the neon signs. They were all over the place, selling hard. One of those became its logo: a man seated at a table eating spaghetti.
Toney’s Italian food was very simple. Here was the apotheosis of New Orleans “red gravy,” not much more than tomato puree simmered for a long time. It was thick and good on the spaghetti, stuffed macaroni (sheets of pasta wrapped around a mixture of bread crumbs, parmesan cheese, and a little meat), meatballs, Italian sausage, or (Wednesdays only) lasagna. Toney’s was the last place in New Orleans where you could walk in any day and order a plate of spaghetti with daube—sliced roast beef simmered in the red sauce for hours.
The upper limits of the menu was somewhere in the vicinity of veal Parmigiana. They made Creole-Italian dishes: stuffed eggplant, oysters with spaghetti, fried seafood, and daily specials of the likes of red beans and rice. But mainly you came for a mountain of spaghetti with red gravy, served for an almost ridiculously low price.
Toney’s went on with all this, always busy, till one in the morning. It reopened the next morning at six with an excellent breakfast. The highlight was the fantastically good, light biscuits, made from scratch and always served hot with lots of butter. They were worth getting up for.
Toney’s was managed in its glory years by the son of the founder, Joe Bonomolo, whose operating philosophy seemed to be that whatever it took to keep the dining room full for as many hours as possible was worth doing. The menu was enormous; if he couldn’t get you with pasta, then how about a poor boy? The prices constituted a bargain not just for the French Quarter, but for anywhere else in town.
Jay Bonomolo, grandson of the founder, took over in the 1980s. By then the French Quarter in general and Bourbon Street in particular had gone over to tourism. Far fewer locals shopped or even worked downtown. In an effort to grab their attention, Jay renovated the restaurant completely, finally getting rid of the old lunch counter and creating a much nicer-looking dining room. But nothing could have arrested the trends. In 1990, Jay decided to move Toney’s to Metairie, saying that he was tired of full days when he didn’t recognize a single customer.
Toney’s seemed out of place in Metairie. The restaurant (it was on Hessmer just off Veterans, where Toys R Us is now) lasted just a few more years before it closed for good in 1993.