by Ian McNulty
The images of Middendorf’s Seafood Restaurant that emerged after Hurricane Isaac were heartrending and all too familiar. They show waist-high water all around the famous eatery between Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Maurepas, an inundated dining room, a submerged patio and even white-capped waves rippling past its parking lot.
That’s the bad news. The good news, reports co-owner Karen Pfeifer, is that not all of Middendorf’s small campus of buildings were flooded, and repair work is already underway to get the restaurant’s trademark, thin-cut catfish back into circulation.
“We’re dreaming about (being able to open on) Sept. 12,” Pfeifer says. “We don’t even have electricity here yet but a lot of work has already been done and that’s the date we’re looking to.”
This should be welcome news to Middendorf’s legions of fans considering all the restaurant and its proprietors have been through lately.
Located in the tiny fishing village of Manchac, Middendorf’s was founded in 1934 and its location between New Orleans and Baton Rouge has helped make it a cherished meeting spot for families and friends spread out across the region. On weekend evenings, it’s common to find a line snaking from the front door as customers wait for tables, and its specialty of ultra-thin, razor-sliced fried catfish has earned such a following that some New Orleans people routinely make the 40-mile drive for a meal here.
Karen and her husband Horst, a German-born, classically-trained chef, bought Middendorf's from its original family owners in 2007. They previously owned the French Quarter restaurant Bella Luna, where Horst's cooking and a rare, panoramic view of the Mississippi River made it a popular destination for fine dining and romantic occasions. That building, part of the French Market, was damaged by wind and rain during Hurricane Katrina and by looters afterward and it never reopened. The Pfeifers also own the Foundry, an events hall in the Warehouse District.
Middendorf's has its own private levee and heavy duty pumps, which kept the restaurant dry and relatively unscathed during hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. But the damage wrought to Middendorf’s by Isaac looks a lot like the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, the storm that followed so fast on the heels of Hurricane Gustav in 2008. It sent a storm surge barreling through Lake Pontchartrain to swamp Middendorf's. The damage was severe, and unprecedented. The Pfeifers were new to Manchac then, but old timers told them Ike caused the worst flooding they had ever witnessed there.
The Pfeifers got Middendorf’s partially functional within weeks of Ike, operating initially out of the newer of its two large dining halls while repair works continued. As they made those repairs, they also built in a little more durability into their restaurant, like a new kitchen raised substantially off the ground.
That kitchen and the newer dining hall escaped major damage this time around from Isaac, Pfeifer says, and that is giving them hope that, once again, they can reopen quickly.
“We have our moments, but we have a great group of people here surrounding us, incredible people who have done work here in the past, and right now it’s looking good,” she says.