New Orleans restaurant culture is abuzz with different flavors, new fashions and even a new lexicon. But then there are restaurants that ignore trends altogether, and in some cases stand apart by essentially standing still.
One exemplar of this last type is Leni's Restaurant, an unfussy, never extraordinary but eminently reliable diner hidden in plain sight in the Warehouse District. It's a place where taking in the details can be as satisfying as eating the food.
There's the clanking, vintage cash register ringing up meals that rarely exceed $10 and the stainless steel milk cooler on the counter. Visiting the washroom means edging yourself past the sputtering griddle, and faded New Orleans Saints posters hanging all around the dining room evoke the era when bleeding Black and Gold actually hurt.
The menu is almost as dated, but unlike many of those old Saints squads, it still gets the job done. Pastel-colored plastic plates are loaded up as if by an indulgent aunt. Paneed veal covers the better part of a plate. Beef erupts from stuffed bell peppers and gets worked into a hamburger steak coated in the same gravy that drips from the roast beef po-boy. Sides like canned beets or hammy greens are wedged in just to make sure you get some vegetables.
Places like Leni's were common downtown in the past, but their numbers are dwindling. Gregory & Pete's, for instance, was a very similar restaurant nearby on Baronne Street that closed in 2011 after a 40-year run. Its old address is being turned into a pan-Asian restaurant called Lucky Rooster, and a Jimmy John's franchise is opening next door.
Gregory & Pete's and Leni's shared more than a format. Their owners, related by marriage, are part of a tradition of Greek immigrants who reached America and went straight into the restaurant business. Pete Patselikos bought Leni's Restaurant in 1978 from another Greek man who had run it since the 1950s and claimed it had been a restaurant dating back to World War I.
Patselikos kept the diner's name, and he's changed little since. He says that's because his customers come for a particular notion of New Orleans comfort food that was codified long before he arrived, and it still runs through his daily specials schedule like clockwork. It's a mix of anywhere-America diner fare, such as meatloaf and chicken noodle soup, and specific New Orleans staples, including hot sausage with butter beans and a Friday seafood platter.
The kitchen usually gets cracking by 6:30 a.m., stacking up malty pancakes the color of egg yolks, superlative hash browns griddled to crisp sheets of crunch (also available at lunch on Fridays) and grits and biscuits that all arrive buttered by a very heavy hand.
In the morning and afternoon, most patrons at Leni's look and act like regulars. But then, it's easy to feel at home here even on the first visit.