A Slice of Mid-City: Part V- Venezia


In every neighborhood there are those culinary establishments that despite hell or high-water come to represent the past, present, and future of a neighborhood for residents.  Venezia is one of those places.  It is undeniably a neighborhood institution, offering diners from all over the world but most importantly New Orleans, the opportunity to sit in a place where thousands of New Orleanians have sat before, to enjoy heaping portions of traditional creole Italian fare.

Venezia Collage.jpg

 

For roughly 30 years, Venezia was owned and operated by Anthony Carollo since 1957.  Anthony Carollo was the son of the infamous New Orleans’ mob boss Sylvestro “Silver Dollar Sam” Carollo.  This remains an important part of Venezia’s history as customers frequently discuss the place as a former mob hang out as they enjoy their heaping plates of spaghetti and “red gravy”. In 1987 the property was sold to the current owner Anthony Bologna, who was responsible for the post-Katrina renovations and reopening.

Venezia is more than just a neighborhood pizza restaurant although they do bake a delicious Sicilian style pie.  It is a neighborhood anchor that since the late 1950s has attracted other food oriented businesses to the area, beginning with its neighbor Brocato’s.  When interview Mid City residents about what they perceived to be the draw of Mid City to New Orleans eaters, Venezia is nearly always at the top of the list.  It is a restaurant that cooks up nostalgia for New Orleans residents everyday. On the spectrum of creolization-Americanization, Venezia is the opposite of Domino’s.  Diners at Venezia spend hours supping and drinking delicious house wine.  The idea is to savor the food and savor the history of New Orleans with every bite.  I find the fact that Venezia is still bustling nearly every night of the week an excellent sign that despite their new neighbors (Pei-Wei, Five Guys, Felipe’s, Panera) New Orleanians are still willing to enjoy the slower more traditional things in life.

 

posted by Arianna King

Local (Culture)

By Danielle Boudreau

 

The second of our three concepts of “local” refers to local culture.  The food served at the establishment does not necessarily have to be grown in the garden next door for it to still represent the local culture. For instance, the self-dubbed “Creole Taqueria,” Juan’s Flying Burrito (http://www.juansflyingburrito.com), integrates Latin American culture with New Orleans’ culture beautifully. Albeit “Americanized” cuisine, with plenty of cheese and variations of sour cream, it is still a sit down establishment where family and friends can congregate over burritos, tacos, quesadillas or enchiladas, much to the tradition of the Latin American way. Locals and visitors alike frequent this place- its hard to get a table around lunchtime any day of the week! As there are numerous people in business attire as well as scrubs, it seems that Juan’s is the hot spot for taking a break from the daily grind.The “Mardi Gras” tacos, coupled with a full Saints drink menu and décor made from Mardi Gras beads give one the impression that the New Orleans vibe is still seeping in at this establishment. Those wanting to fully integrate both worlds can purchase a T-shirt sporting the logo “Hecho in Nola”. Or, perhaps they can start a New Orleans traditional “second line” parade down  Carrollton Avenue headed by a Mariachi band? Anything is possible in New Orleans where all culture is welcome, but local culture is celebrated fiercely.ImageImageImage

Mid-City Cluster of Awesomeness!

Hello again. As promised in my last blog, this entry will mainly focus on the interviews that were conducted by Stephanie and myself. We went into each interview hoping to gain some insight on why this cluster of restaurants is here and how the Greenway Project and the new plaza development will affect them. The following is a map that shows the changes that these new developments plan on bringing to the area.

Stephanie and I started off our interviews at Juicy Lucy’s. As we entered the restaurant we were greeted by Denise Thomas, the manager of Juicy Lucy’s. We asked her if Mr. Mike Juan was available for a quick interview. Denise informed us that Mr. Mike has been spending a lot of time at their soon-to-be new location in Metairie on Houma Blvd. She agreed to sit with us and answer any questions that we had, despite the fact that she was waiting on tables as well. Denise has been working at Juicy Lucy’s for 9 months, but has been in the restaurant business for the majority of her life. She’s managed Mr. B’s Bistro in the French Quarter and Houston’s on St. Charles. She has also written employee manuals for Neows.

We asked Denise about the history of the building. She says that she has lived in the neighborhood for 16 years and she’s seen at least 13 other businesses housed in this particular building. Some of these businesses consisted of other restaurants, coffee shops, and even a small grocery store, Denise tells us.

“If there is one thing that you can tell someone about the history of this place, what would it be?” I ask her. Her eyes lit up and she says, “Ooh, I can give it to you”, as she walks away. A few moments later, she returns with this:

We asked her if she was worried about the competition that the Greenway Project and the plaza development may bring and she responded with, “Pfft! NO! We make over 900 burgers a week and are opening a new location so we must be doing something right.” She tells us that mid-city people don’t want chain food so she isn’t too concerned with Five Guys.

After the interview with Denise, Stephanie and I decided to walk over to Redemption. The hostess informed us that Mr. & Mrs. Delaune were out for the evening. When we explained to her what we were doing, she was quick to introduce us to Joey Lacaze. Joey has been a waiter at Redemption for 3 months, but has been living in Mid-City all of his life.

When we asked Joey how he felt about the Greenway Project and the plaza development, he looked confused. He had no idea what we were talking about. After explaining to him what the plans for the area were, he seemed excited. “Yes! A Pinkberry will be in town”, he says.

On a separate day, an interview was conducted with Chef Greg Picolo. When he was asked about his feelings on the Greenway Project and the plaza development, he shows little concern about competition. He says that the Mid-City restaurants are like one big community and he isn’t worried about competing with someone else. He says that if another restaurant is making something similar to what Redemption sells, he will just have to improve the way he makes the product to keep the customers coming back. He describes the food at Redemption as “upscale, ya’ mom ‘n dems”.

Piecing Together the Canal/Carrollton Community

Contributed by: Deyna Cimino

It’s been about a month since my first blog entry. Jenny and I are still working on Lemonade Parade and Venezia’s. We’ve since achieved an interview with the owner of Venezia’s, Mr. Anthony ‘Tony’ Bologna. Mr. Bologna described Venezia’s as a family-owned-and-operated establishment. He was full of pride while explaining that his son and daughter helped re-decorate the restaurant after Katrina destroyed the Canal/Carrollton area. The restaurant has white linen and pictures of Venice on the walls but doesn’t forget its loyalty to New Orleans. Pictures of Saints, LSU, and Katrina memorabilia make the dining and bar area seem like you’re eating at a friend’s parent’s house. The restaurant is busy and the close seating helps spark up conversations between patrons. Jenny and I remarked on our fellow diner’s caper pizza but weren’t disappointed when our veal entrees came out. The food is way more than you can finish and during the interview, Mr. Bologna explained that he kept his prices down for the people and its working because the people definitely come. We watched as the early birds enjoyed their dinner and then were amazed with the swarm of people who came around 7pm for dinner. The building filled with laughter and clinking plates. Mr. Bologna explained that they were originally among the few pizza places in the area, but he didn’t see Dominos or the pending MidCity Market as a threat because it wasn’t the same type of food nor was it the same type of atmosphere or service. He explained that all the restaurants in the area actually helped each other. “The more people the better” he said and continued that even if someone ate next door, they’d say “we have to try that Italian place next time, so they still come.” Jenny and I sat at the bar and enjoyed drinks, more food than we could eat, and then coffee so we didn’t slip into an Italian food coma on the way home. Our bartender/waiter, Chris, was more than accommodating. He’s worked at Venezia’s going on five years and also attends UNO. This showed aspects of the UNO and Canal/Carrollton community merging. Metairie is also a factor in Venezia’s, where their other location is found. Mr. Bologna explained that the street cars increased business because tourists were able to venture to different parts of the city, including MidCity, and he appreciated this. But, he still made sure to treat his loyal local customers with reverence. After Katrina, this reverence became even stronger. He explained that he was touched to find out that people who were displaced, temporarily and, or permanently, still kept Venezia’s on their list of New Orleans must haves upon returning or visiting home. Mr. Bologna explained that his contribution to Venezia’s was built on the idea of family and that his mission was to perpetuate that feeling through his service and food. Compared to the bustling inside of Venezia’s the outside is relatively unassuming. The sign is neon lighting—part of its method of marketing may be, as an authentic Italian restaurant located in New Orleans, the very lack of seemingly deliberate marketing. It’s plain, rustic, white-walled exterior lets the food speak for itself.

https://i2.wp.com/menuorleans.com/files/menu_images/Venezia1.jpg

Photo borrowed from menuorleans.com

photo borrowed from virtualtourist.com

Lemonade Parade’s logo is reminiscent of the 1950s era dancing fruit commercials and reminds me of the Prytania Theater’s “Let’s all go to the movies” clip. Mike and Lori Bennencourtt also own The Peanut Gallery which hosts exhibitions and other community events. Some of the same people involved with the gallery seem to be involved with Lemonade Parade—extending the Canal/Carrollton community reach. The exterior brick is light blue and their sign is canary yellow with dancing fruit. They’ve compensated for their visibility problem by placing huge yellow banners in front that does attract attention. They have tables outside for seating and this seems to be the way to enjoy Lemonade Parade. This atmosphere works nicely as the community is the backdrop of the restaurant and patrons are literally surrounded by the area as they enjoy their food or beverages. This also yields more community involvement as those passing can engage with patrons, see the items they have to offer, and momentarily become a part of the restaurant’s atmosphere. It seems like Lemonade Parade’s patrons are mostly from the MidCity area.

Photos borrowed from: http://www.yelp.com

Getting Lost in History Can Be Fascinating

Submitted by: Haley Ashe

Hello all! Hope you all have enjoyed reading these adventures in field work as much as I have. Each research opportunity, restaurant visit, casual conversation, new blog post, etc allows all of us to learn something more about this unique city some of us are fortunate enough to call home. New Orleans is a jewel and myself and my fellow bloggers have been investigating this particular facet located at Canal Street and Carrollton Ave.

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Many of us have provided links and helpful photos pertaining to the development of the Lafitte Corridor. Not at an attempt of being redundant but more so out of importance, here are some more links and photos.

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http://www.bestofneworleans.com/blogofneworleans/archives/2011/12/14/sec-of-interior-gives-greenlight-to-lafitte-corridor-greenway

http://www.bestofneworleans.com/gambit/plans-for-the-lafitte-corridor-greenway-are-still-on-the-rocky-road-to-recovery/Content?oid=1620787

http://www.bestofneworleans.com/blogofneworleans/archives/2012/03/20/winn-dixie-breaks-ground-in-mid-city

http://www.urbanconservancy.org/projects/carondelet-basin-greenway

This development is very important to the area and has the potential to drastically change this historical neighborhood.  Interested in becoming a friend of the corridor? You can do it here: http://folc-nola.org/

This particular neighborhood has always been a microscopic example of the racial diversity of The Big Easy. Post Katrina census figures have changed slightly as far as residential make-up, but over all the figures are within similar ranges when you consider the fact that not all citizens have returned nor have all of the homes been rebuilt. Here is a comparison of the 2000 and 2010 census data. http://www.gnocdc.org/NeighborhoodData/4/MidCity/index.html

Mid-City gained its moniker from when it was literally the middle of the city in the late 19th century. Pre-contact natives had long settled the area along the natural levees of the river, avoiding the routine flooding of the lower lying areas we now inhabit today. Mid-City was fully developed by 1920 and had multiple public amenities such as public transportation (http://www.gonola.com/2011/03/16/nola-history-streetcars-the-early-years.html) , pools, parks, theaters, churches, schools, restaurants and more. In September 1926 what had begun to be known as Jesuit high school opened its doors on Banks St. and South Carrollton. (http://www.jesuitnola.org/about/about–6406.htm) Around this time as well across from what is now The Shamrock on N. Carrollton and Tulane was a stadium for our minor –> major league baseball team The Pelicans. http://nolalocal.com/new-orleans-pelicans/

Our old, beautifully decaying city has had many transformations and Mid-City has transformed right along with it. The area of Mid-City has seen many historical structures lost due to neglect and nature. Multiple city blocks along Canal Street have been leveled in the name of progression and corporate interests. Even when citizens have attempted to get involved (http://www.preservationdirectory.com/preservationblogs/ArticleDetail.aspx?id=806&catid=1) it is sometimes not enough. There are grants available through the government for citizens to preserve our city though. (http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2011/08/historic_mid-city_properties_e.html) There are also ways for concerned citizens to get involved in what is happening to their area. (http://www.npnnola.com/issues/view/8/master-planning-for-neighborhoods-in-new-orleans) What often happens is that “we” see what is going on in our city but feel we don’t have the time to devote to city meetings, or that a local government agent would not reply to a strongly worded correspondence. Because of this lack of incentive, many wonderful aspects of our city will be forever lost. I am actually alarmed at how few people are aware of the Greenway project. Claire and I have not spoken with the owners of Juan’s or Wit’s Inn yet, but I have spoken with some other Mid-City business owners, employees, residents and area visitors. Most of the individuals I have spoken with have perhaps noticed there are buildings being torn down. Aside from seeing construction, most are not aware of the future intentions of the area, which in turn has not made them aware of the future impact this project may have. While we all hope it will be positive, the past has shown that large-scale development such as this causes rent to rise and an influx of more affluent residents to move in. This is good for the businesses in the area, this is NOT good for the predominantly working-class, low-income and student aged residents calling this area home. (http://www.prcno.org/neighborhoods/brochures/MidCity.pdf) My hopes for the future is that businesses and residents alike will work together to preserve what makes  this area of the city special in it’s own right.

Our research of Juan’s Flying Burrito http://www.juansflyingburrito.com/

   1908 4724 S. Carrollton Ave Juans bldg

Has turned up some interesting information. Sanborn maps printed in 1898 did not contain any data for the area. I then realized that was because at that time it was only “Carrollton Ave.” and had not extended to Canal Street from Claiborne Ave. yet. However, in only 10 short years Carrollton had then developed into South and North Carrollton and was connecting to City Park. On the 1908 map what is now Juan’s was in existance. It wasn’t until the 1937 maps were we able to discern that Jaun’s had been for many years a Steam Cleaners. On the south side of the building was a movie and performance theater and on the north side of the building was a service station. An anticipated meeting with the owner and more Sanborn maps may shed light on the 60 years after it was a Cleaners.

Our research on Wit’s Inn (http://witsinn.com/) has also unearthed some interesting information as well.

   New+Orleans+1937 141 N Carrollton Wit’s Inn

Wit’s Inn is home to a former pool hall in the 1970s. According to Sanborn maps printed in 1908, the location already existed, although it wasn’t until 1937 that were we able to find a map actually labeling the location as a restaurant. Claire hopes to get to speak with the owner so we can see what his sentiments are on the Greenway project and perhaps give us some insight on the neighborhood and how the businesses and residents interact.

I hope you all have enjoyed reading this as much as I have had writing it! Until we meet again.

Testing the Waters on the RestRow Blog

This seriously makes me feel as though I have been thrust upon a stage and told to sing a song I have never learned. This is my first blog for anything, ever, so please do not judge too harshly ladies and gentlemen of the classroom.

Hello all, I am Haley and I have teamed up with Claire to focus our part of the Restaurant Row project on Juan’s Flying Burrito, http://www.juansflyingburrito.com/ and Wit’s Inn, http://witsinn.com/. Juan’s is located @ 4724 S. Carrollton Ave. and Wit’s can be found @ 141 N. Carrollton Ave. on each side of Canal St.

In doing research for this first post, I have found lots of interesting information on the immediate Canal and Carrollton area. However, specific information on my buildings has been proving to be more difficult and time consuming. I had hoped to have all kinds of neat and interesting facts to share with you all. Claire and I have already gotten to do our first visit to Juan’s. It was quite fun and we got to speak with some of the staff, take photos, enjoy some of their wonderful quesadillas (I had the Luau, sub chicken for shrimp – to.die.for.!), and enjoy some of their in house margaritas. Juan’s has placed in the top 3 for multiple categories in Gambit Weekly’s Best of Lists for multiple years, Wit’s has even found its way into the press as well.

Pre-Katrina I was a resident of the area. I lived in a duplex at the corner of S. Bernadotte and Cleveland streets. Thinking back on it now, I wish I had been aware of what was to come. Although I did patron several of our assigned locales, I wish I had spent more time at the locations that did not return once the city began to revive its self.  I did find a good pre-Katrina website,  http://www.gnocdc.org/orleans/4/45/snapshot.html. Perhaps some of you have already seen it. I also found a city tour guide from around 1935! http://www.archive.org/stream/neworleanscity00writmiss/neworleanscity00writmiss_djvu.txt Some of the descriptions of city night life may be giggle inducing. I included it because it does mention a few Mid-City establishments plus it is an interesting read. Good luck to all and I look forward to seeing what all of our research produces! Till next time guys.

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.”.

Paul Ballard, A New Orleans Inspired Wingman

Wow!

This past week I had the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Paul Ballard, president and CEO of WOW Café and Wingery. Mr. Ballard is a larger than life kind of man with a captivating grin and a presence that leaves listeners hanging on his every word. His strong family ties and love for all things New Orleans were evident within the first several minutes of our encounter. We were just sitting down at a table overlooking a rainy Orleans avenue sipping cold brewed coffee when Mr. Ballard first surprised me by immediately thanking me for our interest in his company. For the first time in a long while I did not feel as though I were pestering someone who had more important work to do than indulge the curiosities of a budding young anthropologist. It was also about this time that I learned Paul was a title that Mr. Ballard was more comfortable with.

Paul is a first generation New Orleanian, who grew up in a music store, Tape City USA, owned by his parents. They operated locations in Metairie, the CBD, and on Carrollton Avenue. Paul said it was a big day for them when then franchisee Nancy Bounds opened the Mid City location. “It was exciting for us to be back in the neighborhood”, Paul said with a smile. This excitement, he later claims, was one of the main reasons he and his brothers, also his partners in WOW, thought it was important to get back open after the storm.

Paul graduated from Tulane University with a degree in History and an intention of going on to Law School. It was while he was attending Tulane he met his wife, and future mother of his 4 children (the youngest only a matter of weeks old). Like many of New Orleans’ college students he found work at several bars and restaurants around town. Sal & Sam’s, which he defined as New Orleans Italian fine dining, required he wear a tuxedo and understand the importance of a good sauce, a notion that stuck with him as the WOW franchise began to grow.

Paul also recounted his experiences as a bartender at Rosie’s Big Easy on Tchoupitoulas. “Having been around for the progression from 4 track and 8 track players to LPs and so on, working at Rosie’s, just down from Tipitina’s, was a blast. We grew up around the music”. He went on to say how he feels very connected to New Orleans culture. He spent parts of his childhood all over this city, and says that when he sees a WOW in some of his old stomping grounds he cannot help but feel good.

Paul’s narrative is a great example of how culture reshapes itself. He grew up part of New Orleans music and food scene. Now he and his wife are raising their own children in an entrepreneurial environment. They are exposing them to an avenue that is clearly one of the cornerstones of New Orleans identity: food. Hot wings and beer may not be the first thing you think of when you think New Orleans food, but the Ballard family has dedicated themselves to creating and spreading representations of New Orleans. I will explore more of this next week when I discuss the connections that Paul has established over the years including his links to PJ’s Coffee founder Phyllis Jordan, and Chefs George Rhode and Paul Purdhomme.

“This is NOT a Cannoli” (But What Is?)

The very first day I went in to Brocato’s I was overwhelmed by the sheer variety of confectionary delights.  Some things were familiar to me as things that are distinctly Italian even though I myself may not have had them before.  There were jars of candy coated Almonds, a variety of biscotti to choose from, spumoni, and rum cake. Then there were the cannoli.  Or at least I thought they were cannoli.  However, they were listed as cannocini with a small sign below, distinctly stating: “This is NOT a cannoli.”  I was intrigued, because knowing what they were not did not help me in figuring out precisely what they were.  They appeared to be Italian cream filled cylinders, and I was failing to distinguish the difference.

My confusion regarding Brocato’s wares involved their frozen treats as well.  During our interview, Arthur Brocato repeatedly referred to his frozen concoctions as “Italian ice creams”.  I had considered them to be gelatos and ices.  When I looked to their website for clarification, I noticed the following: “For the true connoisseur, Brocato’s offers a complete selection of “gelato” (Italian for ice cream) featuring all natural imported Sicilian flavorings from chestnut to moka to amaretto.”

So, according to Brocato’s, “gelato” is Italian for “ice cream”.  Not being convinced that there wasn’t a bigger difference, I scoured the internet, and after looking through numerous Chowhound posts, Wikipedia postings, About.com answers and endless other streams of running commentary on the subject, I gathered that the general consensus is that gelato actually contains milk and cream as opposed to just cream and that the fact that is seems to be superbly creamy in comparison to its ice cream counterpart has more to do with the fact that it is mixed slowly enough that air doesn’t whip in, allowing for a much denser creamy texture.  As for the cannocini: when I finally gathered the determination to display my ignorance of Italian desserts and ask for the difference, I was told that they are filled with sweetened custard filling rather than sweetened ricotta as the cannoli are.

I bring up the cannoli and gelato examples not because I wish to nitpick Brocato’s selections and word choices but because I think they serve as excellent examples when it comes to the endless debate on authenticity. If Brocato’s chooses not to call its Italian Ice Cream “gelato”, does it make it any less authentic? Furthermore, if one is to consider the new twists to old tradition, such as spumoni cheesecake, then where does authenticity come in to question? Are we to assume that if it isn’t traditional it isn’t authentic?  If that’s the case, then nothing new or innovative would ever fit the definition, we’d be stuck in time forever, slaves to authenticity.

Several people have asked me how I feel about Juan’s Flying Burrito (another of my research subjects on the row) when compared with El Rinconcito or Fiesta Latina.  In other words, is Juan’s “authentic” Mexican food?  I would say that it all depends on the definition of authenticity.  I come from a place where a burrito is food to be held, lunch packed to go.  At Juan’s the burritos barely fit on the plate and they are often drenched in sauces.  Grasping one would be highly inadvisable. Does it make them something other than a burrito? Not if Juan’s says that’s what they are.

Restaurant Criticism

I wrote recently that I would not engage in any restaurant criticism here.  And I won’t.  But an essential part of our research is figuring out where the restaurants—past and present—of our restaurant row fit within the complex New Orleans culinary universe.  To that end, I have spent many hours lately digging around in old newspapers, magazines, guidebooks, newsletters, etc. to see how the restaurants have been evaluated over time.

Since the late 1960s, restaurant critics have played an important role in shaping discussions about restaurants and dining in New Orleans.  For this project, I am looking mostly at material about our neighborhood, written and published locally.  This is simply a way of making a very large amount of material more manageable.  For another project, I am also looking into restaurant writing about New Orleans more generally, including some of the early efforts to legitimize the genre and the way it has changed over time, as the idea of culture, useful criticism, careers and other factors have come into focus.

1973 Edition of The New Orleans Underground Gourmet

Many people in New Orleans would agree that Richard Collin, author of the “New Orleans Underground Gourmet” (1970, Simon and Schuster), was the city’s first real restaurant critic.  He was also a history professor at UNO, where his work in food writing was not terribly well respected, both because it was not really academic work and because it probably did not seem like appropriate behavior for a scholar.  UNO would look on such things differently today.  That said, there is a relatively clear relationship between art, film and literary criticism and scholarship in related fields, so that it does not seem unusual for professors to write analytic as well as critical pieces for both scholarly and popular publications.  The ties between academe and restaurant criticism are less obvious, at least from a disciplinary standpoint.  Especially for a historian such as Collin.

Collin stirred up quite a bit of controversy with his writing, in the various editions of “The New Orleans Underground Gourmet,” in his columns for New Orleans States-Item, and in a few other guidebooks about the city.  His reviews were subject to protest at a meeting of New Orleans restaurateurs in 1975, with accusations that he lacked objectivity and, worse, that his wife, Rima Collin (also a UNO professor), had a professional interest in seeing some restaurants better rated than others.  These kinds of accusations and debates go with the territory, as Frank Bruni, former New York Times restaurant critic, notes in his recent book “Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater” (2009, Penguin). But the tone of the original confrontation with Collin seems to suggest that in the early 1970s, restaurateurs had not yet figured out how to make sense—and use—of restaurant writing.

However, it is also true that Collin, along with other critics in the early years of restaurant writing, did not hesitate to dole out cruel commentary on restaurants.  Although such commentary still exists, many restaurant writers in New Orleans tend these days to only write about restaurants they can say nice things about, ignoring the rest.  The reasons behind this are not entirely clear.  Perhaps they feel they can leave the harsh comments to blog writers, on-line discussion boards like Urban Spoon, Yelp, Chowhound, etc.  Collin, however, left us with some very amusing evaluations of restaurants in our neighborhood.  Some include restaurants that have since become veritable institutions in New Orleans, which suggests that despite restaurateurs fear, it is possible to survive and even thrive despite the critical barbs tossed out by food writers.  Here are a few pithy comments about defunct restaurants in our neighborhood:

On Hazel’s Po-Boy, 208 N. Carrollton (where Taqueria Guerrero Mexico is today): “Hazel’s serves cheap poor boys that lack distinction, as well as luncheon specials on paper plates.” (“The New Orleans Underground Gourmet,” 1973, p. 132.)

On Mid City Kitchen, 303 N. Carrollton (near the corner of Bienville and N. Carrollton, on the site of a defunct strip mall, unreconstructed since Katrina): “On some days this is one of the great places in town. On most days it isn’t.  Inconsistency mars the record of a brilliant Cajun burger, well seasoned hamburger poor boys, and excellent roast beef poor boys.  On the bad days you wouldn’t recognize them.” (“The New Orleans Restaurant Guide,” 1976, with Rima Collin, p. 165.)

All, of course, is not negative.  Collin waxed poetic about many restaurants.  In 1976, he wrote about Mandina’s “This is what good old New Orleans neighborhood restaurants once looked like.  Mandina’s still does.  A joy to look at and a joy to eat in.” (“The New Orleans Restaurant Guide,” 1976, with Rima Collin, p. 108).

Some evaluations change over time.  But one that stays remarkably consistent is Brocato’s, which Collin and every other critic I have come across has proclaimed magical.  He writes that the cannoli “may well be the cheapest miracle in the world.” (“The New Orleans Restaurant Guide,” 1976, with Rima Collin, p. 72.)  And despite my promise not to engage in any criticism myself, I will admit that I believe that this is still true, 34 years later.

Much can be learned from looking at the way restaurant writing has shaped our restaurants and our way of thinking about restaurants.  Please let us know of any memories you have about restaurant writing, encounters with critics or ideas about how it should be done.  Who are you favorite (and least favorite) critics?  Tell us about them.