As a teen with wanderlust and solid chops on the piano, Charles Farmer hitchhiked from his native Oklahoma to New Orleans in the 1970s. He played music here for 12 years before moving to Europe. After 20 years overseas, he moved back around Carnival season this year to reinvent himself.
"My life over there fell apart," Farmer says. "So I figured, what better place to put it back together than a city that's rebuilding itself at the same time?"
And as a guy newly back in town, trying to get himself established again, he could have hardly done better than to find a piano bench at Oak Street Caf.
A sunny space that smells like donuts no matter what else might be on the griddle, the Oak Street Caf is a neighborhood diner for anyone looking for the embrace of a neighborhood, regardless of where they might live.
There's a piano in the corner and most days Farmer is behind it, playing jazz standards and old show tunes while patrons put away stacks of pancakes, glazed donuts and po-boys. There is no microphone, but the restaurant essentially offers an open mic platform for anyone who wants to make some music. Farmer frequently is joined for his unusual breakfast-through-lunch sets by a trombonist or a caf patron moved to pick up one of the house bongo drums.
"It's been a great way to meet people," Farmer says. "I go into stores around here now and all the people know me. They call me the piano man."
Though the Oak Street Caf is only two years old, the corner spot in which it is located has been a donut shop or diner for generations. It was a branch of McKenzie's Bakery for decades and, after that iconic New Orleans brand shut down, it was Brown's Diner for a short time. The present incarnation is the work of proprietor Brad Wilkins, a percussionist who has run institutional food service businesses, and his small musical short-order diner and donut shop abounds with homespun touches. A gumball machine and heavy glass cake dome sit on the diner counter, headshots and magazine clippings of local musicians paper the walls and fresh mums stuck in Barq's root beer bottles sometimes decorate the tables.
While the piano is in the corner, the donut counter takes center stage. The donuts are made at Bakers Dozen in Jefferson Parish and are delivered early each morning in about 10 varieties, including a chocolate frosted cake donut that will taste familiar to those who remember McKenzie's long-gone recipes. The apple fritter, a catcher's mitt-size wad of sugary fried dough, is the most decadent of the breakfast pastries and should, by prescription, be served with a cup of coffee lest its heaviness drag the unsuspecting recipient back to bed by the belly.
The hot food made on premises in the tiny, open kitchen has a plain-dealing authenticity that comes from simple preparations of basic recipes. Though the sandwiches and po-boys are most noteworthy for being inexpensive, the best eating comes from the daily specials and some of the mainstays on the breakfast menu, which is served until closing.
Especially satisfying is a dish of poached eggs on English muffin halves, here called Creole spinach egg nests. The eggs are delicately prepared and are indeed nested atop chopped, cooked spinach with a light-tasting Hollandaise. Thick pancakes with pecans or French toast made with sliced baguette or blueberry bread are big sellers, but the dish to get you moving from your bed to the caf in the morning is the huevos rancheros. The most exotic dish on the breakfast menu, it is also the best thanks to the smoky, pleasantly spicy ranchero sauce ladled over the neatly fried eggs and black beans on soft flour tortillas. A close relative is the breakfast taco, which is burrito-size at the Oak Street Caf and made with the eggs and salsa cradled in enough cheese to approach quesadilla status.
The schedule of blue plate lunch specials through the week has given way, post-Katrina, to an unpredictable roster of choices -- now dubbed "blue roof specials" -- that can range from meatball po-boys or fish tacos to pasta casseroles or stir-fries. A recent example from that last category was a Hawaiian-flavored hash of carrots, peppers and zucchini shredded to the consistency of noodles, cooked with grilled ham, a sauce sweetened with Barq's root beer, and rice with pineapple chunks and sesame seeds.
On Mondays, Farmer, at the piano, can be relied upon to riff on that day's traditional special. He'll play "Red Beans" -- singing the lyrics "I got my red beans cooking" -- and look meaningfully toward the cook to make it clear that in addition to performing he is placing an order for his own lunch. Sure enough, by the time the diddy is over, a big ceramic salad bowl of red beans is waiting for him on the counter, meaty with brick-red sausage, flecked with chopped green onion and creamy as can be. The beans are served with a block of corn bread, distinctive for the additions of both garlic and cinnamon baked into the batter for an appealing, sweet and savory undertone in each crumb.
Though relatively new, the Oak Street Caf had a chance to cement its identity as a neighborhood spot in the weeks following Hurricane Katrina. In late September, with many other businesses still paralyzed, the caf reopened on a donation-only basis, giving people a place to find a hot meal, a cup of coffee and a semblance of normalcy. That was just the thing then. Today, with a boogie-woogie pianist crooning "Blue Monday" to people lined up for coffee and donuts at the start of a workday, the caf is gratifyingly just a little bit left of normal.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Charles Farmer helps the morning crowd wake up at Oak Street Cafe.