Ye Olde College Inn
WHY IT’S NOTEWORTHY
Ye Olde College Inn is sacred ground for New Orleans diners–even though it bears no resemblance to the restaurant most people remember. The only culinary link to the past is the fried oyster loaf, which is kept alive only because the exterior sign touting it is a landmark.
Some of the food at the College Inn now is astonishing. On recent visits I had beef Wellington (from a cow raised on the restaurant’s farm), served with potatoes of three colors, preceded by a stack of heirloom tomatoes (all from across the street). The barbecue shrimp, daily soup specials, fish with crabmeat and corn, and a salad of oysters and blue cheese were like what you’d find in much more auspicious restaurants.
The College Inn opened as a branch of the Pig Stand–a Texas-based barbecue joint–in 1933. It shortly evolved into a standard New Orleans neighborhood restaurant, with an enormous menu. After running it too long, the founding Rufin family sold the restaurant in 2003 to John Blancher–the owner of Rock ‘n’ Bowl, another local icon. Blancher and his son John Jr. set about updating the place. The project was jerked first to a halt then rudely ahead by Hurricane Katrina, which rendered the building unrepairable. The restaurant moved into an even older building the Blanchers owned next door. Between that and the drastic changes in the menu, the College Inn became a new restaurant in every way but its name and a few diehard customers.
The environment no longer goes with the food. It still looks like a neighborhood hangout, including the bunch of old guys drinking beer at the bar and a video poker closet. But these days a restaurant can’t be too casual, so they will get away with such stuff. Actually, the premises are very cool–a single big room with a high, wood-beam ceiling, a skylight, concrete floors, lots of open space. The former schedule of being open almost any time people might be hungry has been replaced by a five-day, dinner-only routine.
»Fried green tomatoes, boiled Gulf shrimp remoulade
»Stuffed half artichoke, roasted pepper aioli, balsamic dipping sauce
Flash-fried oysters, iceberg, purple onion, blue cheese
Fried boudin cake, pepper jelly vinaigrette, poached egg, red pepper sauce
»Farmhouse salad (baby lettuces, local vegetables, citrus-shallot vinaigrette
Wedge iceberg salad, blue cheese, tomatoes, crispy bacon
Heirloom tomatoes, balsamic, basil, purple onions, blue cheese
»Turkey and andouille gumbo
Baked potato soup, bacon, scallions, cheddar shreds
»»Fresh fish, lump crabmeat, vegetable maque choux, roasted corn sauce
Crawfish Delacroix (baked Gulf fish fillet, crawfish etouffee)
Broiled fresh fish, rice, almond green beans, cherry tomato vinaigrette
»Peppered lemon-thyme chicken, orzo pasta, tomatoes, wilted spinach, lemon-caper butter
Panneed veal cutlet (“chicken-fried steak”), spinach, mashed potatoes, brown gravy
Slow cooked pork medallions, tasso, braised greens
»Shrimp and smoked Gouda grits, tomato chow-chow, Monica sauce
»Braised duck salad, blue cheese, toasted pecans, Grand Marnier, cranberries, pepper jelly vinaigrette
»Straight stick ranch hamburger steak, grilled onions, brown gravy
»Grilled tenderloin of beef, red wine-mushroom reduction
Braised lamb shank, mustard-lamb reduction
»Smoked and grilled bone-in pork chop, Southern Comfort sauce
»Fried green tomato shrimp remoulade poor boy
»Fried oyster or shrimp poor boy
Chicken fried steak poor boy
Fried oysters, havarti cheese and bacon poor boy
»Straight stick ranch cheddar cheeseburger
»Fried bread pudding poor boy
Chocolate pecan caramel cluster cake
»Chocolate peanut butter pie
Barq’s root beer float
»Caramel cup custard
Sticky toffee pudding
FOR BEST RESULTS
The College Inn’s most famous old dishes were the chicken-fried steak and the oyster loaf, both poor boys now. Do not get these even for nostalgic reasons. Seafood is actually the best thing they cook. The hamburger is terrific.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT
The creature comforts–notably in the lighting and the chairs–could use an upgrade.
FACTORS OTHER THAN FOOD
Up to three points, positive or negative, for these characteristics. Absence of points denotes average performance in the matter.
- Dining Environment +1
- Consistency +1
- Value +1
- Attitude +1
- Wine & Bar
- Hipness +1
- Local Color +2
- Outdoor tables, drinks only
- Good for business meetings
- Open after 10 p.m.
- Unusually large servings
- Quick, good meal
- Good for children
- Easy, nearby parking
- Reservations accepted
ANECDOTES AND ANALYSIS
Three years ago, this column visited Ye Olde College Inn and didn’t like what it found. Almost everything about the old-line Carrollton Section eatery–including the building–was changed beyond recognition. Worse, the new food was a step down from the old food, which had been no great shakes to start with. We gave it one star and left it for dead.
I am pleased and surprised to report now that Ye Newe College Inn has achieved the most impressive turnaround I’ve seen in long time. With hours, menu, and cooking practices like those of a gourmet bistro, it’s become not just improved, but far better than at any time in its history.
In early 2011, Chef Brad McGehee–a San Francisco boy who’d done time at Peristyle, the Ritz-Carlton, and other top-end New Orleans restaurants–took over the kitchen with a vengeance. He’s planted a block-long mini-farm for vegetables and herbs across the street from the restaurant, and is raising a variety of animals. All the eggs and hamburgers now come from the restaurant’s own herds. The menu changed accordingly, with only a few vestiges of the past remaining.