The people look a little astonished as they file off the tour buses and walk inside Russell's Marina Grill, and with good reason. They're on Katrina destruction tours and have spent the morning gazing at the crazy quilt of ruined houses, next to pristinely renovated homes, next to bulldozed lots, next to rejuvenated businesses along block after block of contemporary Lakeview.
And then there they are at Russell's -- near the lake and right by the 17th Street Canal -- standing inside a gleaming, bustling diner, complete with a vintage counter and revolving stools, deco light fixtures and whipped cream-covered pies staring back from a mirrored case by the cash register. It looks a lot like the highway diners of New Jersey, but with a menu informed by local tastes and an address in a neighborhood rearranged by Hurricane Katrina. It's not unusual to see a guy in boat shoes and a golf shirt eating bacon and eggs at the counter at 2 p.m. while a crew of National Guardsmen huddle in a booth in their camos eating shrimp platters, fried green tomatoes or red beans and rice with giant, steaming ham shanks on the side.
Russell's is named for its founder Russell Cuoco, who sold the place to his former employee and fellow Greek immigrant Pavlos "Paul" Petrou in 1989. The other part of the restaurant's name comes from its proximity to the marinas of West End Park, a location that, if viewed from the sky on Google Maps, would appear to be in the heart of flood devastation. But get a look from ground level and you won't need the eyes of an insurance adjustor to see the slightly elevated mound on which the restaurant sits. It made a critical difference and kept the flooding at Russell's relatively minor. Petrou was able to reopen about three months after the storm.
Staffing is down, the menu is shorter and hours are reduced to breakfast and lunch. But Russell's is still Russell's, and that means a lot of meals here start with the "Onion Mumm." Russell's lays claim to inventing this bouquet of batter, made by slicing a large onion, coating it, frying it and putting a cup of remoulade-style sauce in its center. You can get one of these under different, often trademark-protected names at any number of chain restaurants or from carnival vending tents. At Russell's, they come the size of a small jack-o-lantern, are sweet and highly seasoned and probably have enough batter on all their geometric surfaces to pave a driveway. They also happen to be as irresistible to some customers as popcorn at the movies.
Russell's covers the breakfast and lunch basics well. The burgers are medium-sized, simply dressed and satisfying without any gourmet aspirations. It's exactly what you expect to get at a diner counter with a side of fries and a bottle of ketchup. Pancakes are nicely crisp at the edges and eggs taste like butter and whatever type of breakfast meat you ordered to go with them.
There is a serious fry cook in the kitchen. Different batters adorn different foods, with a dark, richly seasoned one encasing onion rings and tart fried pickles while a lighter, softer batter is used on the fried seafood. Platters are a better choice for seafood than the po-boys, mainly because of the disappointing conventional loaves used instead of distinctive local po-boy bread.
Not even the salads are outside the fry cook's realm. The country chicken salad, easily the most popular salad option, is a bed of garden salad fixings and a base of fried chicken strips supporting something like the Tower of Pisa made from thick onion rings. Get it with a cup of blue cheese dressing and consider taking a nap after lunch.
Some of the specials have bistro-level aspirations, and good options include the blackened redfish or roasted pork loin. If they fall a little short of what you'd get in a fancier dining room, they are still good bargains at around $10 or $11 and arrive about eight minutes after you order them.
The service is friendly and helpful, even if all you buy is a $3 plate of biscuits with gravy and a coffee. Many of the restaurant's employees came back to work here after the storm. One of them was a guy everyone calls Big Al, a table buser for 20 years who also came up with the house bloody Mary recipe. On the weekends, some regulars insist on waiting as long as necessary for Big Al to mix their cocktails himself.
Russell's has a full bar and you can even order a bottle of wine with your chicken fried steak if so moved. On the other end of the beverage spectrum are fresh-squeezed orange and grapefruit juices, which are part of Russell's unlikely side role as a haven for the health conscious. Past all the French fries and sausage links, the menu has things like multigrain pancakes and omelets made with egg whites, chicken breast and spinach.
The most unusual choice on the menu is the Mr. America Roddy Gaubert Special, a two-plate breakfast named for the champion bodybuilder that consists of two pancakes with fruit and nuts, five scrambled egg whites and one lean hamburger steak. This is of course a theme breakfast, a protein parade intended for guys who will be under a barbell for hours at a time, but it will also gird everyday New Orleanians for bouts of rebuilding when they return to the world of destruction tours, sunken sailboats and neighborhoods on the mend just outside Russell's doors.
- Russell's owner Paul Petrou (center) reopened relatively quickly following Katrina and longtime employees Allen Williams and Shelly Carter are among the familar faces at the restaurant.