When Kevin Hackett and Donna Cavato decided the time had come to open their own restaurant, the Kitchen Table Cafe, they looked to an up-and-coming stretch of St. Claude Avenue in Arabi, an area that still felt like a bit of a gamble but beckoned with potential. It was early 2016, and the couple had just relocated to Holy Cross from their longtime home in Bywater, where rising housing costs and the area's rapid gentrification were rendering their neighborhood unrecognizable.
Just over the St. Claude Avenue Bridge and the Industrial Canal, the allure of cheaper rents and a welcoming neighborhood was strong, and Hackett realized they weren't the only ones eyeing the small blue-collar community right across the parish line.
"We all kind of showed up here at the same time," Hackett says, referring to the other bars, restaurants and artist studios that opened nearby. "We were always interested in Arabi because we loved the neighborhood feel of this area — it's so close to the city and yet it really does feel like a small town here. Someone who couldn't necessarily afford to open a business up in the Marigny or Bywater could certainly do it down here, and yet still be drawing from the same clientele."
Around the same time, bartender trio Kelly Sheeran, Lisa McCracken and Muriel Altikriti — who met while working at Bywater bars Markey's Bar and BJ's Lounge — had a similar idea. They jumped on a space across the street and opened Pirogue's Whiskey Bayou, a casual bar with taxidermy accents and an impressive craft beer selection.
"We pretty much just showed up in Arabi's comfort zone and it just worked," Sheeran recalls. "We just started hearing more and more about what was going on down here. It was just a matter of introduction."
Though the influx of new restaurants in St. Bernard Parish is most concentrated in and around Arabi, just over the parish line from Orleans, throughout St. Bernard Parish a mix of newcomers and those who have called the area home for years have created a unique checkerboard effect that's resulted in a multifaceted dining destination. The largely blue-collar parish once was home to rural, rustic communities of fishermen and trappers, then populated by workers from the nearby sugar and oil refineries. Much of the parish was severely battered during Hurricane Katrina and the flooding that followed, but the neighborhoods and residents who returned have rebuilt their community in a spirit of stoicism that endures today.
And just as Bywater itself once was attractive to transplants for its then-cheap rents and bohemian atmosphere, Arabi now is attracting a similar crowd. The glassworks Studio Inferno moved from Bywater to Arabi a few years ago, and the Valiant Theater (which closed last month) are part of a nascent arts district on St. Claude Avenue near the Kitchen Table Cafe.
The businesses hugging the intersection continue to increase and now include a yoga studio, a Mexican restaurant, a crafts store, a crawfish spot and a cluster of artist enclaves. At the Kitchen Table Cafe, Hackett — formerly the sous chef at Ian Schnoebelen's Mariza — has crafted a menu of creative American fare, which includes a smoked Gulf fish spread, grilled pimiento cheese sandwiches and a grilled, bone-in pork chop special on Tuesday nights.
In the rear of Pirogue's Whiskey Bayou, chef Scott Maki's new pop-up kitchen, Chew Rouge, features a mashup of tasty bar food and creative dishes with international twists. Baby back ribs are slow-roasted and tempura-fried, then tossed in a ginger and soy glaze. Fresh jalapenos are stuffed with cream cheese, wrapped in bacon and drizzled in sweet pepper jelly, and the Pho-Rench dip burrito is filled with heaps of braised beef, noodles, jalapeno, cilantro and cucumber and served with a pho-style broth for dipping.
The Arabi Food Store — tucked into a corner building on a sleepy residential street — is a good place to lay a serious foundation for the day with the $3.99 early bird special, served from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. A lunchtime crowd comes here for the potatoes and gravy and po-boys, and early dinner options include red beans and rice on Mondays with smoked sausage and a pork chop and a fried catfish dinner on Fridays.
No matter the time, there always will be someone at the counter at Gerald's, the no-frills 24-hour diner with locations on both St. Claude Avenue and Judge Perez Drive. In the early morning hours, workers from nearby refineries pop in for coffee and donuts (the maple-glazed bacon and Oreo versions are favorites) while late-night revelers come here to wind down with a burger fix.
The majority of restaurants occupy the mostly parallel thoroughfares of St. Bernard Highway and Judge Perez Drive, but a short stretch of Paris Road sandwiched between the two is home to several good spots. At Joey's Grill (inside Joey Jeanfreau's Meats), the sign outside this parish lunch-only mainstay ("You'll Never Get a Bum Steer at Jeanfreau's Meats!") is a good indication of what's in store. Part butcher shop, part restaurant, meat is the main attraction.
The store is four generations in the making, says Joey Jeanfreau, who now runs the spot with the help of his daughter. Jeanfreau's father opened the shop in 1974 and his grandfather ran Jeanfreau's Supermarket in the 9th Ward before that.
"It's just an old-type butcher shop — real New Orleans," Jeanfreau says. A former U.S. Navy cook, Jeanfreau decided to launch the restaurant part of the business in 2000, using the fresh meats butchered on site as the source for his creations.
A steady lunchtime crowd still comes for the veal Swiss melt sandwiches with griddled onions, roast beef po-boys dripping with gravy and the homemade hot Italian sausage sandwiches.
On the other side of the street and a couple of blocks toward the river, Cafe Aquarius takes a lighter, more health-focused approach, although part of this groovy Chalmette bakery and cafe's appeal is its impressive selection of cakes and desserts. The menu has a strong lunchtime game with flatbread pizzas, wraps and salads along with creative grilled cheese sandwiches and burger specials.
Time may as well stand still at Rocky & Carlo's, the funky, old-school Chalmette icon where the turquoise "Ladies Invited" sign on the front window still greets guests as they enter. For the past 53 years, the family-run institution on St. Bernard Highway has been piling plates high with macaroni and cheese topped with gravy, enormous portions of veal Parmesan and spaghetti with red sauce. After five decades in the business, the restaurant still buzzes with life and heaps of feel-good Italian comfort.
Driving down St. Bernard Highway past the parish jail and refineries, the winding route becomes more rural. The road passes sprawling green fields dotted with cows and horses grazing at the Docville farm before leading to the town of Violet and Charlie's Restaurant, which occupies a corner building just off the highway. Chad Blanchard opened the restaurant in 1992 as a 22-seat diner. Since then, the restaurant has expanded to include more than 160 seats, and the welcoming dining room features walls covered with Louisiana-themed artwork, including a colorful painting of a crawfish boil, with the crustaceans spread over local newspapers. The menu here followed a similar model, starting out small and expanding over the years to include eight pages of Blanchard's creations, many of which push the limits of excess.
"When I started out, it was really small but it just kept growing," Blanchard says. "I was cooking at a very young age and it was just something that I always wanted to do."
Blanchard's seafood gumbo — a dark roux version full of shrimp, crab, oysters and sausage — has won multiple awards throughout the years. Creative, decadent twists on New Orleans classics have kept the restaurant busy: roast beef and fried seafood po-boys, pasta swimming in creamy crawfish gravy with paneed eggplant, fries tucked under a blanket of roast beef debris.
"We have people coming in sometimes three or four times a week," Blanchard says. "St. Bernard is a small community — everybody knows everybody."
Restaurants like Crave in Meraux and MeMe's Bar & Grille in Chalmette raise the bar considerably. Both serve contemporary regional fare with an upscale and creative twist. At Crave, the boisterous dining atmosphere is complemented by decor with plenty of Louisiana touches. Dishes like Delacroix seafood enchiladas or tamales on the bayou have a south-of-the-border ring, while the bang bang shrimp and the Buddha tuna hint at a Southeast Asian influence. At MeMe's, oysters are served raw on the half-shell, or char-grilled, drizzled in all manners of styles, from the New Orleans butter-and-Parmesan classic to a sweet and spicy version topped with chili peppers.
Further down the road, boaters heading toward the Gulf of Mexico might stop by the appropriately named Last Stop Food Mart for a breakfast biscuit filled with oozing cheese, sausage, bacon and eggs, fuel for a morning of fishing. Restaurants throughout the parish reflect the bounty of seafood found in the surrounding waters in a casual and laid-back manner. There's Today's Ketch Seafood, which sits in a blue building off Judge Perez Drive. It specializes in fresh and boiled seafood and is a local favorite for crawfish. Diners pack the handful of tables inside for stuffed crab and peppers, crawfish etouffee, seafood gumbo and potato salad. And at the Vietnamese-run Banh Mi Boys Seafood, the focus is on fresh seafood, in particular Gulf shrimp and crawfish. Platters and crawfish pies round out a short and simple selection of boiled and fried seafood.
The Vietnamese community doesn't have as strong a foothold here as it does in neighboring parishes, something Chung Quach realized when she took over the lease at Beignets & More in the Chalmette Cinema Shopping Center. Noting a lack of Vietnamese food in the area, Quach took the opportunity to revamp the entire menu to reflect her roots, while keeping the beignet offerings intact.
Quach now runs the family business with the help of her son, Nicky Ta, and her husband.
"The closest place to get Vietnamese food used to be New Orleans East," Ta says. "We didn't have any restaurant experience in our family, but this is what she would cook at home."
The name of the restaurant belies the fact that the real draw is steaming bowls of pho piled high with fresh herbs, evidenced by the scent of anise-flavored broth wafting throughout the petite space.
Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes are what bring diners to the grocery and restaurant Stella Maris. Especially good are the kebabs and the Stella Maris Special combination plate with hummus, baba ghanouj, dolmas, tabouleh, falafel and eggplant salad. For Japanese fare, there's Asakusa, which opened a few months ago and serves an extensive menu of sushi, hibachi and other dishes, including some eccentric-sounding creations such as smoked salmon bits, which are wrapped around cream cheese, tempura-battered and fried. And tucked into the rear of the Perez Latin Grocery, a Honduran-run kitchen provides a wide selection of Central American specialties ranging from beef tongue and carnitas tacos, to Honduran balleadas, Mexican tortas and crispy Salvadoran pupusas, which come oozing with beans and cheese.
Whether it's taking a few steps across the parish line from Bywater or a longer excursion to one of the fishing camps that instills a need to replenish and refuel — there is plenty here to explore.
Arabi Food Store
650 Friscoville Ave., Arabi, (504) 277-2333; www.arabifoodstore.com
1913 E. Judge Perez Drive, Chalmette, (504) 962-9365; www.asakusajapanese.com
Banh Mi Boys Seafood
113 E. Judge Perez Drive, Chalmette, (504) 644-4619
Beignets & More
8700 W. Judge Perez Drive, Chalmette, (504) 459-9233; www.beignetsandmore.com
2101 Paris Road, Chalmette, (504) 510-3080; www.facebook.com/eataquarius
6129 E. St. Bernard Highway, Violet, (504) 682-9057
(inside Pirogue's Whiskey Bayou)
6940 St. Claude Ave., Arabi, (504) 314-9342; www.chewrouge.com
3201 E. Judge Perez Drive, Meraux, (504) 676-3697; www.facebook.com/cravestb
6901 St. Claude Ave., Arabi, (504) 277-0030; 2101 E. Judge Perez Drive, Chalmette, (504) 252-9498; www.geraldsdonuts.com
2324 Paris Road, Chalmette, (504) 271-8216; www.jeanfreausmeats.com
Kitchen Table Cafe
7005 St. Claude Ave., Arabi, (504) 301-2285; www.facebook.com/kitchentablearabi
The Last Stop
4513 Highway 46, St. Bernard, (504) 301-1511
MeMe's Bar & Grille
712 W. Judge Perez Drive, Chalmette, (504) 644-4992; www.memesbarandgrille.com
Perez Latin Grocery
9219 W. Judge Perez Drive, Chalmette, (504) 475-5545
Rocky & Carlo's
613 W. St. Bernard Highway, Chalmette, (504) 279-8323; www.facebook.com/rockyandcarlos
Stella Maris Cafe & Grocery
7555 W. Judge Perez Drive, Arabi, (504) 400-4004
Today's Ketch Seafood
2110 E. Judge Perez Drive, Chalmette, (504) 279-6639; www.todaysketch.com