Old Metairie: 1517 Metairie Road
2001-2005 (with Zeke; 2012 after Zeke)
Zeke Unangst was a unique restaurateur, well liked by all his customers. He was a tall, slender, soft-spoken guy who always gave me the impression of being shy.
So it’s a little strange that he is best remembered for a shtick that was and will probably always remain unique in the annals of the local restaurant business. Several times during each evening’s service at Zeke’s, the man himself would walk around the dining room singing country musician David Allan Coe’s “You Never Even Called Me By My Name.” Zeke didn’t pretend that he did this especially well. (Remembering all the funny lyrics is itself an accomplishment.) His goal was to get everybody in the place to sing along with him. Why he did this, and why that particular song, are mysteries that remain unsolved.
Once that datum is put forth, we move on into the main reason we went to Zeke’s. We went there for the seafood. Here are those lyrics:
Zeke worked for his brother Dickie
At his West End seafood Café
Through the nineteen-nineties he toiled
Until that two thousand-one day
When he went on his own in Metry
In King Creole’s former location
And boiled and broiled and fried
His way to customers’ ovation.
King Creole had been in the strip mall across the parking lot from the original Byblos. It served the familiar Suburban Creole food that Metairie diners (although not, perhaps, Old Metairie diners) were accustomed to finding at places like Sal & Sam’s, Chahardy’s, and the Red Onion. It wasn’t good enough to pull a strong volume onto Metairie Road, a road not traveled much on the way to anywhere else.
When Zeke took over, he toned the menu down to just above the level of a West End seafood joint. He boiled crawfish, crabs and shrimp in their seasons, fried seafood platters, assembled poor boys, and doled out red beans on Mondays. The place had just enough dishes with seafood in cream sauces to pull customers from the country clubs, as well as people from all over Metairie, Lakeview, and even Uptown. Certainly his customers from the West End Café followed him.
The first talk about the place came from its copying Drago’s char-broiled oysters as a house specialty. Zeke’s was the first restaurant in town to do that. (It would be followed by dozens more.) Its version was a bit different from the original (not as much garlic, more herbal flavors). But such an inspired idea allows for some variations. And Zeke’s had an oyster bar to supply fresh bivalves for the project.
The boiled seafood was the best reason to eat here. A window in the rear of the dining room gave a view of the boiling process when it commenced daily in the late afternoon. The most regular customers knew to be there around five-thirty, when you could get the boiled crustaceans steaming hot.
Things were rolling right along for Zeke’s when Katrina hit. It shouldn’t have been a big disaster for the restaurant. It was on the Metairie Ridge, above the flood. But a month after the storm Zeke was in the intensive-care unit of a hospital in Houston, fighting a blood infection. The way I heard it, he was either working on his house or that of a friend, and cut himself. One thing led to another, and he succumbed to the ailment on October 12, 2005. He was just 49.
His family and managers had just reopened the restaurant, and things were looking up when he took a rapid downturn. Zeke’s remained open, but without Zeke it wasn’t the same. It went through out least two sets of owners, the last one being the people who ran Frankie and Johnny’s uptown seafood house. It finally closed for good late in 2012.
The space is now Porter and Luke’s, which opened in January 2013. With Chef Vincent Manguno (who you may remember from La Riviera, the Seafood Grille, and most recently Nuccio’s), Porter and Luke’s is one of the most-discussed new restaurants in town. But it’s not Zeke’s. That restaurant and its namesake we will never forget.