I just returned from a short trip to New Orleans and since the city is well-known for its culinary goodness, I dutifully did my part to eat in as many restaurants as possible. Many restaurants in the old part of town, the French Quarter, occupy historic buildings and spin a colorful history. The Cafe du Monde, a traditional coffee
shop, was established in 1862 in the French Market. Its sits next to the levee by Jackson Square. Its chicory coffee and golden beignets (square French-style doughnuts) piled high with powdered sugar should be mandatory for any visitor to the city, but its building exhibits no historic charm.
Two restaurants I dined at during my visit inspired my historian’s sensibilities for different reasons. In the mood for dessert one night, my friend suggested a trip to the Camellia Grill, known for its pecan pie. Sitting by the St. Charles street car line, the Southern diner is an easy ride from the French Quarter (although now there is a Camellia Grill in the Quarter as well). Built in 1946, it looks today as it probably did when it opened, though the kitchen appliances have been updated. It features one long curving counter, with about 30 round swivel stools placed along it. Many of the wait staff look as if they’ve worked there for many years. Much of the kitchen activity is within view and the small interior can get crowded with nearby university students. I had
the chocolate pecan pie. My waiter put the pie on the grill, waited a few minutes, then flipped it until it was warm. He plopped a huge mound of ice cream on top and the result was the best pecan pie I’ve ever had. The diner felt like a trip back in time and exuded authenticity – no fake 50’s look here. Watch video about the Grill.
Another day we drove about 45 minutes west along the Mississippi River to visit Houmas House, a restored sugar cane estate. We stopped for lunch nearby in Burnside at the Cabin. While I enjoyed my fried shrimp po-boy sandwich and the corn bread was excellent, the place’s history was unsettling to say the least. The restaurant literature describes it as “unique in all the world.” The building is a conglomeration of various historic buildings melded together. One is the “schoolhouse,” the first black Catholic school in Louisiana, built in 1865 by the sisters of the sacred heart. The core building, approximately 180 years old, however, was originally a slave cabin on the Monroe Plantation. The walls are papered with old newspapers. Extending from this building is another slave cabin from the Welham Plantation, with original roof and walls, approximately 140 years old. Two more slave cabins, from the Helvelta Plantation, extend beyond the courtyard. And the restrooms probably take the prize – they are constructed from a cypress water cistern used to store fresh rain water – they are curved, even the entrance door. The partitions in the restrooms are from the Old Crow Distillery in New Orleans.
Another wing is constructed of a preserved general store, filled with interesting farming implements. The stated goal of the owners is to preserve some of the local history and food traditions from the River Road area. Preserving local history is laudable, but failing to interpret the story is wrong. A restaurant in former slave cabins is just strange. What do you think? Have you been to any strange “historic” restaurants?