When customers enter Steve Herbert's restaurant, Cafe Gentilly (5325 Franklin Ave., 504-281-4220; www.thecafegentilly.com), he'll ask their names, and the next time they visit, he'll inquire about their "momma an' dem."
"People come here because they know we'll treat them right," he says.
Cafe Gentilly has served classic Creole breakfasts and lunches for nearly four years, along with daily specials like red beans and rice on Mondays and spaghetti on Wednesdays. The restaurant occasionally serves off-menu items like gumbo z'herbes — Herbert's version placed third in the "Taste of Dillard" Cook-Off at Dillard University a few years ago. Customers should call ahead for this gumbo at the cash-only joint.
On Sundays, his breakfast du jour (and personal favorite) consists of various riffs on eggs Benedict. He substitutes French bread for English muffins — the texture of toasted French bread provides a better base, he says.
"We won the Battle of New Orleans — French bread, no English muffins here," Herbert says.
Herbert's 26 years in the restaurant industry lend quality and depth to his cooking: mirepoix replaces New Orleans' traditional trinity for his soups and stocks, and bechamel sauce accompanies fried catfish and shrimp. "If the rich people can eat like kings, why can't we?" Herbert says.
Having spent most of his life in New Orleans, Herbert uses local ingredients including Patton's, Vaucresson's and D&D's sausages. He also sells Merlin "Piece of Meat" Fleury Sr.'s tamales (call ahead for those, too).
Herbert says it's a lot of work to run the cafe, especially since it's far from the commercial tourist centers for restaurants. "It ain't like the Food Network," he says, laughing. However, he's happy to create a neighborhood destination in the heart of the 8th Ward.
"[The cafe] provid[es] a place and an occasion for families, friends, neighbors [and] co-workers to get together over food, at a table, and dine together," Herbert says. "When they do that, they become closer to each other."