Lee Circle Area: 1238 Baronne Street
Until around 1965, the image of New Orleans held by most Americans who might consider visiting here was that it was a genteel Southern city with a penchant for raffishness. You’d come here to dine in the likes of Antoine’s or Commander’s Palace or the Camellia Grill. One day you might get funky and go to Mother’s for a poor boy and some gumbo.
Twenty years later, that ideal had changed. From then on, most out-of-town fans of our city came to believe that you couldn’t have an authentic New Orleans experience unless you fetched up in a shabby building on a hard-to-find corner with an impossibly cheap menu. There you would find the true New Orleans flavor. Any establishment that didn’t have a proper measure of seediness could not possibly be “true” New Orleans.
That’s absurd, of course. But one restaurant testified to the possibility that it might be true. Uglesich’s had the most convincing third-world look in town. And it really did have great food.
Uglesich’s opened in 1924, another of the many restaurants around town opened by first- and second-generation Croatian immigrants. The streets were lined with old, spacious Greek-revival houses of strong architectural merit, built in the years when this was as cultured a part of town as any other. Lots of churches, theaters, and restaurants filled the area, with classy St. Charles Avenue running through it.
By the time most people who might read these words got to Uglesich’s, the neighborhood had declined quite a lot. A slow but seemingly unstoppable process of demolition put many holes in the formerly grand blocks. Many of the remaining mansions were now subdivided low-income housing.
The offices of the Figaro weekly newspaper, where I worked throughout the 1970s, was walking distance from Uglesich’s. The staff went there often, because it was cheap and it fit the newspaper’s image of real New Orleans. (We were the vanguard of that point of view.) We called it “Ugly’s,” not only because the real pronunciation (“oogle-SICH-ehs”) was hard to say.
Anthony Uglesich, the second-generation owner, felt no urgency to make changes in his dad’s restaurant. He deferred painting the place for a span of years during which most people would have painted it four or five times. In this, Uglesich’s matched the deteriorating neighborhood. The ventilation system was so ineffective that you returned from lunch there, nobody had to ask where you’d dined. You smelled as if you’d fried fish all day.
That figures, because Uglesich’s was primarily a fish house. Its Croatian heritage connected it with the oyster industry, then and now dominated by their countrymen. Uglesich’s had agreat oyster bar, and it fried oysters and every other kind of local seafood very well. Most of the menu was taken up with poor boy sandwiches, including a roast beef with a reddish gravy unlike anything I saw elsewhere.
Lunch business from the big Brown’s Velvet Dairy across the street kept Uglesich’s going for a long time, as the number of neighborhood people declined. A host of unique characters–some of whom appeared in various media as examples of local color–hung around the place all day long. The most famous of them was Ding Ding The Singing Bird, who delivered sandwiches on a bicycle to the area, and sold peanuts at Tulane Stadim.
In the 1980s, it suddenly became impossible to get a table at Uglesich’s. The dining room filled up at all hours, every day. Not only with local people but tourists. Tourists at Uglesich’s! How did they find the place? The city’s best chefs–the likes of Frank Brigtsen, Susan Spicer, and Jamie Shannon–came in often. Celebrities visiting New Orleans began to show up. Some of those would buy out Uglesich’s for an evening and hold big parties.
Long-time Uglesich’s customers found this newfound currency hilarious. It was the same old place it always had been. The only new development was that Anthony and his wife Gail began cooking a few daily plate specials to add to the poor boys and seafood platters. Those were indeed good, but not enough to explain the crowds.
For the next twenty years, Uglesich’s became for many people the ultimate expression of what eating in New Orleans was about. Its fame spread among fans of New Orleans food throughout the country. Flush with this success, Anthony finally performed a light renovation in 1997. He replaced some of the old fixtures, built a new kitchen, fixed the exhaust system, and even painted the exterior. The customers were wary of all this gussying up, but got used to it.
Anthony and his wife Gail cooked their great specials starting early in the morning. They liked seafood mostly, especially when abetted by a lot of garlic and red pepper. The specials done (the kitchen staff would take care of all the frying and shucking), Anthony presided over the customers from behind the bar, keeping track of every table in his head.
There was no printed menu, just an assortment of signs posted behind the bar. Even though Uglesich’s never stopped being a neighborhood joint, its prices entered the gourmet bistro range. I spent thirty to forty dollars every time I went there. (Cash only.)
As we entered the 2000s, conversations about Uglesich’s among its fans shifted from how terrific its food was to how much longer it would be around. Each year, Anthony and Gail took a longer and longer vacation–June to October in 2004.
This only added urgency to Uglesich’s fame. Volume increased right up until the day after the Jazz Festival in May, 2005 when Anthony and Gail retired and closed the restaurant. That was a few months before Hurricane Katrina, which the old joint survived without serious damage.
During the final weeks, the line extended out the door and far down the sidewalk. Ever since the restaurant closed, it’s published two cookbooks of its recipes. Every few days, an excited correspondent asks me whether there’s any truth to the ever-floating rumor that Uglesich’s will reopen. The answer is maybe, but I wouldn’t count on it.