A small restaurant row in Gentilly that was wiped out after Hurricane Katrina is becoming busy again. The 5300 block of Franklin Avenue is anchored by Fleury of Wings (5325 Franklin Ave., 504-302-9675), the name of which indicates a main specialty but doesn't tell the full tale, and Willie's Kitchen (5321 Franklin Ave., 504-283-3200; www.willieskitchenneworleans.com), a newer addition with a hybrid buffet/family-style approach to comfort food during lunch. A new restaurant called Cafe Gentilly is in the works between those two, and directly across the street is the site where Dunbar's, a pre-Katrina bastion of Creole soul food, is expected to relocate this spring.
Fleury of Wings is the new incarnation of Merlin's Place, which was located a few doors down. Owners LeKesiah and Merlin Fleury moved it to the former home of The Munch Factory (6325 Elysian Fields Ave., 504-324-5372), a neighborhood standout that moved last fall to a spot closer to the University of New Orleans. There are wings with 35 sauce flavors, but the exceptional roast beef po-boy and hot tamales, both holdovers from the first Merlin's, are still my go-to items.
Walk into Willie's Kitchen and you find long communal tables set up as if for a banquet, and a steam table with a dozen or more items. Pick a main item (such as meat loaf, fried chicken or smothered pork chops) and you have the run of the many sides (red beans, green bean casserole, fried okra, mustard greens and others) and second helpings of those sides are encouraged. Lunch costs $10 with tax and a drink included, and there's also an a la carte menu available until 8 p.m. Willie Cave, a Houston native, opened the place this fall, recognizing the one-time restaurant cluster was overdue for a rebound.
"It's close to the lake, close to the universities here — there's no reason why we can't come back like other parts of town," Cave says.
Diners who remember the red beans, fried chicken and gumbo from Dunbar's should be excited about owner Celestine Dunbar's plans to reopen here. She plans to convert the former address of Vazquez Restaurant, now empty, into a place called Dunbar's Soul Food. She'll serve her familiar comfort food menu at lunch, and dinner will feature more complex Creole dishes, with an emphasis on grilled seafood and roasted meats.
Plans for Cafe Gentilly have not been announced.