Mid-City: 909 S. Jefferson Davis Parkway
Two things come to mind when I think of turkey and gravy with mashed potatoes and cornbread dressing.
The other one is Wise Cafeteria.
Like all cafeterias, Wise had turkey and dressing on the hot line every day, all day. With cranberry sauce, just as if it were Thanksgiving.
Unlike all other cafeterias in my experience, Wise also served good food. Very good food, in fact.
Like most people of my generation, I ate in cafeterias a lot when I was young, mainly because my parents took us to them on the rare occasions when we dined out. We kids were used to them, because we ate in cafeterias in our schools every day of our lives. They weren’t like real restaurants. You didn’t have to abide by any unknown rules of etiquette. You only paid for exactly what you asked for. For example, cafeterias sold butter and margarine by the pat, in the most extreme form of a la carte pricing in the history of food service. And, unless you had a waiter carry your tray to the table (and who did that but the infirm?), there was no tipping.
Then, one day, I learned about Wise. A co-worker of mine at the Time Saver (another young guy paying his way through college) was as enthusiastic about Wise Cafeteria as I’ve heard from anyone else about any other restaurant. It’s the best! he claimed, shooting down my own cafeteria experiences at Morrison’s and A&G as impossibly inferior to the wonders to be found on the line at Wise.
So I went. The year was 1969. I had turkey and dressing, and a salad with blue cheese dressing, and bread pudding. I thought it was good, but not to the degree claimed by my buddy. It was the first example I can remember of a restaurant’s disappointing me because of inflated expectations. “You got the wrong thing!” he claimed. (It was the first time I’d heard that line, too.) “The turkey is okay, but what you want is the shrimp remoulade, the boiled brisket with vegetables, or the corned beef, or even the red beans!”
It took me awhile to get back there–Wise closed at a quarter to eight and all day Saturday, which made it tough for me to get there. But finally I did, and had the vegetable soup, the brisket, the vegetables, and the custard.
Every bit of that was great. From then on my love of Wise’s food matched that of my fellow Time Saver, even after I discovered many other kinds of restaurants and dishes on a much higher culinary plane.
By the time I found it, Wise’s was one of the last of its breed. It opened near the Board of Trade in 1933, using a line of steam tables and booth tables that founder Harold Wise bought used. When Esso built a skyscraper (relatively speaking) on Jefferson Davis Parkway at the foot of the overpass over the former New Basin Canal (now the I-10), Harold moved into its first floor. His son Milton joined the business, and the legend of Wise Cafeteria and its one and only location (every other cafeteria had multiple venues) began. It was close enough to Uptown to get many of its denizens, plus everybody in Mid-City and Broadmoor.
Harold and Milton, alone among cafeteria operators, understood that this is a town where good food is essential for most people. Wise’s prices were higher than those of other cafeterias, but the food was far better. Milton Wise did all the buying, butchering, and recipe development himself. He used salt, pepper, herbs, garlic, bits of smoked pork, and other Creole seasonings to create dishes that lacked nothing for flavor.
At peak hours, the line of people waiting to fill a tray with food pushed to the front door, where it doubled and tripled on itself. At the head of the line was a letterboard outlining some of the recommended items, with the advisory at the bottom that the average time of employment for Wise’s staff was over 10 years.
Just past the pile of beat-up trays and paper-napkin-wrapped silverware were salads, ranging from cafeteria mysteries like shredded carrots with raisins and Jell-O with fruit (people expected these things from a cafeteria) to really fine shrimp remoulade and stacks of ripe tomatoes with a homemade blue cheese dressing to well composed green salads.
Next–strictly for marketing reasons–was dessert. The great ones came from pans behind the pies and cakes. A wonderful old-fashioned egg custard, mellowed with cinnamon and nutmeg, tasting almost like egg nog. Light bread pudding and rice pudding with a custard sauce. Delicious homemade cobblers.
Then the soups, also made on site–a great vegetable soup, as I noted, but also a fine seafood gumbo. Next on the line were a couple of carved-to-order roasts–the brisket, if that was one on, or the corned beef. Roast beef and ham was always up there, and often a nice pork loin, each with a homemade gravy.
No rhyme or reason revealed itself from then on. The entrees were just there, unadorned, no fake parsley or decorations, steaming in their sauces. Plump stuffed crabs, nicely seasoned, was among the most popular dishes. Fish–either fresh or bearing a sign telling you it was frozen–broiled or fried with a good cornmeal crunch. Beef stew. Tender, buttery quarters of baked chicken. Fried chicken– better than most fast-food joints, and cheaper. Consistently great red beans and rice. They’d grill a steak to order and bring it out with a tasty natural gravy. And, occasionally, cafeteria atrocities like cheese-stuffed, bacon-trussed weenies.
Finally, the vegetables. Fresh spinach, corn on the cob, baked potatoes, great baked macaroni, the famous eggplant casserole, peas, turnip greens, Brussels sprouts, and other stuff. And breads, including excellent fresh bran muffins (sweet enough to work as dessert), garlic bread, cornbread, and those inevitable parkerhouse rolls.
The biggest danger in eating at Wise’s was in getting too much food. It wasn’t expensive–it was hard to run up a ten-dollar total–but so many dishes looked so good that you’d overload. Then you wound up eating too fast, because your tray full of food was getting cold. In the later years, Milton Wise attempted to solve this problem by installing microwave ovens in the dining room. Most customers, however, solved the problem in the time-honored way: they inhaled their meals. Some people would pack it all away in ten minutes. Which might be half the time you spent in the line.
In its last decade, Wise’s momentum got it through dire business conditions. The main disaster was when its office building was deserted by Exxon in the late 1970s. It filled up with other concerns, but emptied out yet again in the mid-1980s. Meanwhile, cafeterias had gone out of vogue except among the elderly. The average age of the customers edged toward deceased. I took my mother there once when she was in her seventies, and she complained that she didn’t like eating with so many old people. It didn’t help that the premises were becoming very, very worn.
Through all that, the food remained good. And then, one day in 1988, Milton Wise told his staff not to come in the next day, that he was closing the place down. I never spoke to him about the suddenness of it all, which perplexed his regular customers and distressed his employees. But that was that.