Storms have had a way of directing Jim Harp's life. He was an independent insurance adjustor for 10 years -- work that first brought him to New Orleans following Hurricane Georges in 1998. Looking past the relatively minor damage that storm brought, Harp liked New Orleans so much that he decided to move here.
Eight years later, the effects of Hurricane Katrina have Harp standing over tables in the dining room of Elizabeth's Restaurant, describing to patrons his plans for the Bywater neighborhood cafe he now owns, the bar he plans to open upstairs in the coming weeks and his enthusiasm for the city.
Harp, who has also been a lawyer and an Army helicopter pilot, decided he had enough of the insurance business after Katrina struck his adopted hometown.
"Insurance companies are not doing right by folks, and I had enough and wanted to get out," he says.
A first-time restaurateur, Harp can be forgiven the suspicion that serendipity had a hand in bringing him to Elizabeth's, a small place with a big reputation and a strong local following. He was the insurance adjustor who handled the restaurant's claim after a hailstorm in 2000 damaged many roofs in the neighborhood. And earlier this year -- while casting about for a new line of work -- he was staying at a Faubourg Marigny bed and breakfast on the night the innkeepers announced their decision to seek a buyer for their nearby restaurant -- Elizabeth's.
Harp is the restaurant's third owner in 13 months. His task is to bring to fruition new ideas for the place its previous owners had just begun to introduce, while at the same time restoring the hallmarks that made Elizabeth's name in the first place. There is dinner service now, something originally presented only during special times like Jazz Fest weekends, and there is the upstairs bar he's enlarging in the hopes that it will become a neighborhood hangout. On the restoration front, Harp recently brought back breakfast -- a casualty of staffing shortages at Elizabeth's since reopening after Katrina but a calling card of the restaurant from its start.
"We're trying to bring it back, mostly how it was, a little different, but better," says Harp.
Heidi Trull opened Elizabeth's in 1998 serving down-home Southern fare for breakfast and lunch in a casual setting completely absent of pretense. That recipe -- and dishes like grillades and grits, praline bacon and Carolina-style pulled pork -- made the restaurant an underground sensation with locals. Before long, people from around town and well-informed visitors traveled to its tucked-away location on Gallier Street by the Mississippi River levee, lining up outside to wait for a table at its popular Saturday brunches.
In April 2005, Trull sold the restaurant to local innkeepers Floyd McLamb and Stuart Anthony and returned to her native South Carolina. The new owners spent last summer on a renovation of the first floor dining room and a major project to add a bar and a second dining room on the previously unused second floor. Their changes for Elizabeth's were just getting off the ground when Katrina threw all plans to the wind. They reopened for a few months before deciding to sell the restaurant and concentrate on their bed and breakfast, called Lions Inn.
Now that Harp is in charge, he can be found doling out insurance advice to customers in Elizabeth's dining room, a practice his wife Holly LaFever teasingly warns might fill the restaurant with people seeking insurance help rather than lunch. But that's not likely. As solid as Harp's insurance experience may be, it's the cooking of Bryon Peck that people are coming after.
Peck cooked at Elizabeth's with Trull practically since it opened. After Katrina, he ended up building cabinets in California for about six months before coming back to start rebuilding his young family's badly flooded house in Holy Cross.
"When I found out he was available, that settled it," Harp says of his decision to buy Elizabeth's.
Peck and Harp came to terms over a few beers at Markey's Bar around the corner and Elizabeth's reopened in May with a new owner and an experienced hand in the kitchen.
The food at Elizabeth's is the same as before, only now there is more of it. For the new dinner service, Peck pulled many of the dishes that were favorites at Trull's special Jazz Fest evening meals. So there's a homespun take on rillettes made from bits of pulled pork, fried green tomatoes, smoked rib-eye steaks, seared duck breast and pork chops with wild mushroom glaze. Most entrees are priced around $12.50; most appetizers are less than $5. The regular lunch menu brings salads and po-boys and specials like chicken stew on Tuesdays, chicken fried steak on Wednesdays and liver and onions on Thursdays. For Elizabeth's regulars, the return of breakfast will be good news as well. Back are the old-fashioned, sweet Creole rice cakes called calas, "basic" breakfasts with eggs, grits and fried catfish and that singular praline bacon -- prepared by marrying chopped pecans and bacon with brown sugar and pork fat.
The same storm winds that eventually brought Harp to Elizabeth's also peeled back the siding on the building's exterior to reveal a vintage mural painted on the original weatherboards. The mural is an ad for Regal Beer, a long-gone relic of New Orleans' brewing past, and Harp guesses it was situated high up on the building to draw the eye not of neighborhood pedestrians or motorists but rather of thirsty sailors plying the Mississippi River just over the adjacent levee. He plans to have it restored so that, like Elizabeth's itself, it will be another bit of local color given a new shine.
- Tracie Morris Schaefer
- In the Bywater, Elizabeth's is a popular neighborhood spot now serving breakfast, lunch and dinner.