Book review: Lost Restaurants of New Orleans and the recipes that made them famous

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Lost Restaurants of New Orleans and the recipes that made them famous – by Peggy Scott Laborde and Tom Fitzmorris (Pelican)

Tom Fitzmorris remains very active on the New Orleans food scene, but I am unsure about just what form – if any – his Crescent City food guide takes these days.

The books listed on his website are, one, a history of New Orleans food culture, and two, a recipe book.

For many of my visits to New Orleans, his restaurant guide was toted all over the city and I found it indispensable, although in the end so frequent did my visits become that I was able to move beyond it as I discovered gems – through friends and familiarity with the city – that were not included in the book.

Nevertheless, I was excited about getting my hands on this book on “lost” New Orleans restaurants.

It’s not quite as comprehensive as the title suggest.

As Fitzmorris points out in his introduction, to be comprehensive the book would have to unfeasibly weighty. Besides which, as with any other locale, many restaurants have closed because they don’t deserve to be remembered.

Instead, the book focuses on 100 eateries of many different kinds that are remembered by “a fair number of New Orleanians still living as of 2011, when we composed it” and are worthy of being celebrated.

Given that sort of timeframe and timing of my own visits to that city, I was unsurprised to find restaurants I was familiar with – in some cases very familiar with – featured in the book.

I spotted three right off.

Looking a little closer, I noticed another half-dozen or so.

A profound sense of deja vu leads me to think there’s maybe another 20 or so that I set foot in at one time or another.

(I’d have to dust off and unearth the detailed diaries I maintained of those trips to be sure. A former partner once stumbled upon this trove, and was excited because she thought she was going to get the inside story of my sordid behaviour while in New Orleans. She was thus very disappointed to find every meal eaten, every record bought and every gig attended described in minute detail … but very little else!)

The hardcover book is beautifully presented, and is stuffed with fantastic vintage photos, menus, matchbooks and other memorabilia.

The individual restaurant entries are likewise full of stories not just about food and recipes and dishes, but also the colourful characters and history and stories that made these places legends.

Lost Restaurants of New Orleans is very highly recommended to anyone even remotely interested New Orleans, its history and/or its food and cooking.

Here’s some of the places included the book that I remember most fondly, with appropriate quotes from the book:

Hummingbird Grill, St Charles Ave (1946-2001)

A fabulous 24-hour diner-style place run as an adjunct of an equally seedy hotel.

Good for very good – and ridiculously cheap – burgers, breakfasts and red beans-and-rice.

“People who would spend their last dollar, then had to find a place to sleep that night, were at the Hummer’s counter. But so were men and women in formal wear, en route home from an underfed, oversloshed high-society party … Those who could not be dragged into the Hummingbird Grill had problems with the neighborhood. Those who did like the place pointed out that the lunch counter was always full of uniformed New Orleans policemen on their meal breaks. Only an idiot would try to start a rumble there.”

Barrow’s Shady Inn, Hollygrove (1943-2005)

You could get anything you wanted at Barrow’s – as long as it was catfish!

“When the fish came to the table, it was the definitive golden brown and so hot you shouldn’t have eaten straight away. But there was no way to keep from diving in. It was so good and light, with that background glow of red pepper, that you wanted to inhale it.”

Uglesich’s, Lee Circle area (1924-2005)

A ramshackle and truly legendary (mostly seafood) place – no menu, just notices pinned all over the walls. Super cheap!

“The ventilation system was so ineffective that when your returned from lunch there, nobody had to ask where you’d dined. You smelled as if you’d fried fish all day … A host of unique characters … hung around the place all day long. The most famous of them was Ding Ding the Singing Bird, who delivered sandwiches on a bicycle to the area and sold peanuts at Tulane Stadium.”

Kolb’s, St Charles Ave, CBD (1899-1995)

A very Germanic place with whacko Teutonic decor and lots of German dishes on the menu – although the only thing I can recall eating during my frequent visits are oysters and gumbo.

I loved it there – despite its central location near Canal St, it was always cool and dark-ish.

According to the book, the famous sign is still in place.

” …When I finally got to Kolb’s, in the mid-1970s, it was in decline … the German food was not all that good … by this time, most people who went to Kolb’s at not the German food but the creole cooking. During a couple of years during which my office was two blocks away, I ate there once or twice a month and remember eating turtle soup, barbecue shrimp, baked oysters with crabmeat and hollandaise, roast chicken, and bread pudding … All of this was actually pretty good.”

T.Pittari’s dining room in the 1950s.

(This post written while listening to Bunk Johnson.)

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