Live Oak Cafe (8140 Oak St., 504-265-0050; www.liveoakcafenola.com) reopened recently in a newly renovated and expanded space with a large kitchen, a live music area and a pastry and coffee counter. Chef/co-owner Clare Leavy says the cafe still wants to be a neighborhood hangout, but also a place for picking up morning pastries and coffee on the run or a quick plate lunch to go.
The new kitchen space and equipment, she says, is a game-changer. (Previously the cooktop, oven, prep and serving area were in the dining room).
“With this new equipment, we are able to do so many things to expand our business that we couldn’t even dream of before,” Leavy says. “It cuts our prep time down by a sixth. It’s making it possible for us to get really creative. … We’re working into doing plate lunch specials Monday through Friday. We’re trying to do something interesting, but hearty food that anyone would like, and it’s a good portion for the price. A lot of our lunch business is people on the street who are at work and don’t have time to wait for a sit-down meal, so the take-away lunch gives us the ability to feed these people.”
She and chef/co-owner Helena Hjort are expanding their morning offerings, including strong coffee and freshly baked pastries.
“We’re really increasing our fresh pastries,” Leavy says. “Helena is a fabulous baker and she’s bringing some recipes that she perfected in Sweden (her homeland), but also trying her hand at a lot of new Orleans favorites, so we’ve got pecan pie, fresh baked cinnamon rolls, seasonal fruit muffins. We’ll sell pastries by the baker’s dozen (13). You can mix and match, bring them to the office. We also will have to-go coffee as well.”
For those who aren’t in a hurry, there’s live acoustic music daily by a changing slate of artists, generally playing a different genre every day. “We’re still experimenting as to what the space can do,” says Leavy, who credits Jason Van Ness, a server at Live Oak Cafe who also books music, with finding a variety of New Orleans musicians to play for breakfast and lunch crowds.
“It’s a challenge for him to find musicians who are way beyond our league but also convincing them to play acoustic, if they usually plug in, or to [change instruments], that kind of thing,” Leavy says. “It makes it really unique when they get in here, because they’re playing in a way they never, never do. It’s fun for them and it’s fun for us because you never know what you’re going to get until it’s happening.”
Live Oak Cafe closed for renovations in December 2014 and reopened in March. It serves breakfast and lunch daily from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. Breakfast includes eggs Benedict and huevos rancheros (both made using cage-free eggs) Mama Leavy’s pancakes and more. Lunch includes daily specials, sandwiches and sides made with locally produced goods.
The cafe expanded into a empty part of the building it already occupied, using the extra space for kitchen operations and storage, adding a fresh juice bar in the center of the building near the pastry and coffee counter, which has seating for about 10, and reconfigured the dining room. The area now includes a long bench along the wall that accommodates several four-seat tables. The opposite wall near the music area has intimate booths, and there are scattered tables on the main floor. Leavy says the renovation increased the seating capacity by 50 percent, with room to grow.
In a hallway leading to a side entrance of the cafe, Hjort hung framed vintage ads for businesses that occupied Oak Street in the 1950s as homage to the neighborhood and the Live Oak location, which has housed food-focused businesses since the 1920s.
The history project will continue, Leavy says, as information about the hundreds of photos Hjort has collected becomes available. The walls also will hold images of what the cafe and neighborhood are like today, including pictures of the various musicians who play live acoustic sets there.
“Even though (the renovated cafe) is all new and modern, and we’re young, and people maybe would think that we’re a gentrifying force, but really we’re trying to do the exact opposite of that,” Leavy says. “We’re trying to build on the history of the street and specifically the location. It’s been a cafe almost continuously since 1920. … In the ’50s it was Pure Foods, and it was McKenzie’s for a long time, and in the back was the Clover doughnut factory. It’s been a lot of things, specifically the kind of place you would come hang out or a special treat for the kids, and we’re trying to continue that.”