The Red Door Lounge

The Red Door Lounge is described to me as having “Mid-City charm.”  Online reviews, as well as the bar’s homepage, consistently use the same adjective.  The bar’s bio states that it is “a cozy place for regulars and an inviting space for newcomers.” Not being overly familiar with Mid-City, I wanted  to see what about the bar gave it such obvious Mid-City charm.  Then I hoped to discover what Mid-City charm even meant – the term seems to be used and understood by locals with some frequency, as if there were a particular qualifying criteria for such a description.  

The front door of the bar is angled in such a way that if viewed in isolation, it would appear to be a corner lot. However, it is not.  It is positioned between Taqueria Guerrero and a discount mattress and futon store.  Charming.  Inside it is narrow, long, dark, and last night, hot; the air conditioning had gone out earlier that day.  The walls are lined with a mix of (reproduction?) nostalgia, Saints stuff, some acrylic art, photos from the flood, and bar events promotion boards.  There will be free food for next weekend’s Saint’s game.  The Red Door also offers a variety of activities, other than drinking.  One can gamble using video poker machines, play Wii, darts, pool, or watch TV.  It also appears that you could have a dance party.  There is a disco ball all the way in back by the pool table.

The crowd seemed almost entirely regulars and many service industry workers. This could be in part because the Red Door offers a discount for industry people.  The bartender was very friendly and the drinks were extremely cheap.  Though I did not order a $10 bucket of beer or a $5 pitcher, if I had it would have been served with a bag of ice floating to maintain drinking temperature.

The Red Door during a Saint's game

I understand that the bar was originally opened in 1940, but after Katrina, was bought and renovated by its current owner.  I have come across reviewers that long for the old Red Door, saying that the new one is “straight out of suburbia.” There are others, though, that feel it is the “perfect neighborhood bar.”  One such blogger goes so far as the have specific requirements for earning this title, requirements worth reading as they paint a vivid picture of the Red Door – http://millyonair.wordpress.com/2009/02/24/new-orleans-part-iii-the-red-door/ .  Despite the heat and the 90’s pop grunge playing last night (later changed to Erykah Badu, which was great) and the sports-bar-feel of the Red Door, I was charmed.  There was an odd assortment of effects that did this; street car going by, holiday string lights, the fact that the bar decorum makes it seem as if they are always hosting a party, and that Restaurant Row and the Red Door Lounge have a slightly dilapidated look and feel to them.  It feels like a neighborhood here, maybe that is “Mid-City charm.”.

This Week on Restaurant Row

Yesterday,  the research team met for lunch to discuss our progress on Restaurant Row.  I anticipated  sitting down together and, after we each summarized our interviews and findings for our establishments, a coherent relationship between restaurateurs, patrons, and neighborhood would appear.

Ah ha! We would say, so this is Mid City!  Our meeting, of course, did not go this way – we all have formulated different impressions about the row and its significance in the area.  We don’t know how much camaraderie our restaurateurs feel with each other, or if they see one another as a threat to business.  Intuitively, one would think that proximity alone would cause these restaurants to compete, but I am not sure they do, or that they even have the same regular clientele.  The only owner to hint at the challenge of being a part of a restaurant row so well established was Monica of Eco Cafe.  Her breakfast/lunch coffeehouse has been open a little over four months at the corner of Scott and Canal.  When asked about her immediate business community, Monica told me it was at times very difficult and frustrating to be a part of.  She is extremely focused on environmentally sensitive products ; the Eco Cafe uses biodegradable products when possible, recycles, and composts with Nola Green Roots.  She is in the process of expanding the menu to cater to vegan clientele  – something I would think would set her apart from, rather than put her in direct competition with places like Brocato’s or the Ruby Slipper.  Frustrations aside, Monica said she loved Mid City and wouldn’t have started her business anywhere else. She is active in the community and intends to become more so by joining the Mid City Neighborhood and Business Associations.

 Mid City Community Garden

Compost from Eco Cafe is used in Mid City Community Garden

Eco Cafe is quite a contrast to Venezia, the owner of which, Anthony, did not once mention a relationship the other restaurants or the neighborhood during our interview, except when talking about the past.  I got the impression that he used to feel more connected with the row and the residents, but that after the storm, many of his regulars moved out of Mid City and now commute to his restaurant.  As far as the Neighborhood Association goes, he told me that if I could tell him what the annual fee for being a member was, he would be able to recall if he was, in fact, a member.  I asked if he was, then, not exactly passionate in participating in the association with the other restaurant owners.  He laughed and said no.

My other establishments to research are Subway, which will not respond to my attempts to contact them (though in their defense, I am having just as much difficulty tracking down Jen and Erich of the Ruby Slipper – if you are reading please call me!) and the Red Door, a formerly rowdy, though reportedly calmed down favorite neighborhood bar.  I have high hopes for these last two establishments to really tie it all together for me.

I Did Not Miss My Calling as an Archivist

I went to the District Civil Court to trace the chain of property owners for several of the restaurants in our project.   Seth Gray had told me about his trip to the Conveyance District (the branch of the DCC that houses the property archives of a certain time period) – his account of his research not only sounded wildly successful, but like something that I could do too.   He had sold me on the romance of digging through title archives in a stuffy silent room of the Court House so, armed with a pen and no real idea what I was doing, I set off.

After greeting me, the office receptionist plugged the addresses of my restaurants into the archive computer and rattled off instructions for what I needed to do next, utilizing a vocabulary and acronyms mostly unknown to me.  She must have sensed I had not followed her completely (possibly the vacant expression on my face – a result of my confusion and increasing light-headedness from not eating that morning) so she took a moment to write down all of the stats she had just looked up on my properties and told me to head to the fifth floor. On the fifth floor, an archivist was called over to assist me.  He, like the woman downstairs, began talking to me in archive speak.  My first reaction was to nod knowingly at what he was telling me about districts and notaries, etc., so as not to give myself away as an absolute research novice, but I reconsidered, realizing that would not be effective if I actually wanted to learn something.

The archivist set me up with five or so gigantic metal bound books of property title changes.  By set up, I mean I had these books in front of me on a long table where I could bend over awkwardly to read them .  For whatever reason, chairs were not made available for this type of research, but Seth was right about how excellent these documents are – they list births, deaths, divorces, and aliases of all parties involved.  They even list the previous spouses of all title vendors and vendees.  The information seemed too personal to be public domain.  I wanted to photograph some pages and handwritten property notes, but wasn’t sure if photography was permitted.  Rather than asking a researcher, like a normal person, I tried to capture the footage sneakily. Not so sneakily as it turned out, when I was unable to turn my camera to silent so that my every button push was accompanied by a chime .  I was like a really bad, boring spy.  Needless to say, my photographs from that day are not top-notch.  I am currently in the process of compiling title tracks for each of the restaurants I will be researching and have vowed to be more collected and adult-like the next time I return to the Civil District Court to complete these traces.

Eating Your Feelings

When I told a friend about the restaurants that would be the focus of our project, she lit up at the mention of Mandina’s.  This is where her family has always gone immediately following the funeral of a relative.  In fact, she told me, members of her family have become so accustomed to the ritual of post-funeral dining, that many of them now make a point to eat at Mandina’s after any funeral – family or otherwise.  Eating one’s way through a difficult time seems to be characteristic of many New Orleanians – evidenced in the aftermath of the 2005 storms, when local papers and the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization posted almost daily updates on the projected reopening dates of the beloved Restaurant Row ; as if residents couldn’t wait to eat away troubled thoughts at Brocato’s or Venezia and be assured that all would be well  because the restaurants were back.

Now, most of them are back and we are trying to establish what it is about them specifically that has so endeared them to the community.  Why are these businesses flourishing and in such concentration?  “Zoning,” was the response  David Beriss got from a restaurant affiliate to this question – an answer a bit deflating for a few moments for us, who are hoping for something more curious and charming than zoning to explain the vibrant area.  I gave this some thought, deciding that location in the row alone was not a guarantee of success for a food establishment.  Our research team is now collecting stories of the early years of business for the restaurants as told by owners, employees, and customers.  So far I am most impressed by the adaptivity of the establishments.  One restaurateur told me she had to change her menu completely three times within the first months of opening earlier this year.  She and her patrons are still trying to agree on what her restaurant should serve.  Anthony of Venezia said that his restaurant used to be open till all hours for pitchers of beer and pizza.  At that time they were drawing in a student crowd.  Now he said they mostly do large parties and family gatherings.  Maybe I should recommend my friend check out Venezia as another great after-death meal spot.