Local people of my parents' age can tell tales of a restaurant scene along the Lakefront that to me sounds hard to imagine. Where I saw a marina, a sprawling and usually empty parking lot and only a handful of seafood places, they remembered restaurant after restaurant, many of them perched over Lake Pontchartrain on stilts, all of them serving gargantuan portions of freshly caught, local seafood. Still further back in time, people my grandparents' age can tell stories of the area as a summer resort, with jazz clubs, dance halls, hotels and bathing pavilions.
Someday, if I ever become a parent, I can tell my own kids stories that they may find just as hard to reconcile with the area they see. I'll tell them about Bruning's where we ate raw oysters served on ice-filled platters and whole flounders broiled in butter. I'll reminisce about crossing a footbridge over the canal to go to Sid-Mar's, where we had trays of spicy boiled crabs on a screened-in porch while watching the shrimp boats bobbing gently at their piers just outside. I'll describe the hot crawfish and cheap pitchers of beer in the old dining hall at Jaeger's Beer Garden, where kids ran rampant and everyone ate too much.
No one can quite pinpoint when the Lakefront that my predecessors knew was lost -- it drifted away over time -- but the Lakefront I knew vanished precisely on Aug. 29, 2005, the day Hurricane Katrina hit. Bruning's and Jaeger's were wiped out and my future progeny will need a healthy dose of imagination to visualize what Sid-Mar's was all about. Not only did the storm wreck the building, but the little spit of land off Orpheum Avenue where it had been located -- along with the adjacent fishermen's docks -- has been swallowed by new flood control gates at the mouth of the 17th Street Canal.
There is hope for a resurrection of the area. On the other side of the floodgates, the seafood restaurant Pontchartrain Point Caf and, next door, the diner Russell's Marina Grill are open. The Steak Knife, formerly on Harrison Avenue, will join them soon in a little cluster of West End life. The Regional Planning Commission is examining a project to redevelop the West End, and the owners of both Bruning's and Jaeger's have said they hope to return to business. At least for now, however, the summertime ritual for so many local families of eating seafood together at these places in view of the lake is out of the question.
Following the pattern of incongruity that is normal in post-Katrina New Orleans, a very short journey reveals an entirely different world. Cross the Old Hammond Highway bridge over the canal and most of Bucktown is booming.
If hot seafood and cold beer were a form of currency, Deanie's Seafood would be the Federal Reserve of Bucktown. The restaurant is cavernous, and while the plain dining room has about as much charm as an office cafeteria, the platters of food the kitchen sends out instantly become the center of attention at any table. There are raw oysters, boiled crabs and New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp, but fried seafood is the major specialty here and it is distinctive for nothing so much as its volume. The summit of the menu is called the "giant seafood platter," which costs $43, weighs several pounds and is, of course, intended to be shared by at least two people.
Opened in 1961, Deanie's is the oldest of Bucktown's restaurants. The youngest is New Orleans Food & Spirits, the offshoot of a Harvey seafood restaurant that opened here in the late 1990s. The small kitchen makes no boiled seafood, but it does a great job with the fried kind thanks to a homemade batter that has a slight tempura quality and seems to prolong the lifespan of its crispiness better than most. The best eating here isn't fried, though. Smothered rabbit with white beans, a Thursday-only special at lunch, is so popular with regulars that I have never managed to arrive before the kitchen sells out. I can testify to the goodness of the crawfish and corn soup. Even in summer, when the crawfish tails certainly come to the restaurant frozen, they burst with flavor and meld well with the spicy and chowder-thick base of the creamy soup.
New Orleans Food & Spirits is built literally on the down slope of the lake levee -- a perch its neighbor R&O's has kept for 25 years. Of the Bucktown restaurants, R&O's big, bustling dining room is the most reminiscent of old lakefront days, even if the restaurant's menu is a hybrid of local seafood and old-school Italian fare. The offerings have been scaled back since the storm -- there is no longer boiled seafood -- but the bready stuffed artichokes, fat po-boys with both Italian and hot sausage and excellent, thin-crust pizzas are all just as good as before.
Across the street, surrounded on three sides by the new floodgate project, II Tony's serves the Bucktown-mandatory seafood platters but is best known for the Montalbano family's Italian specialties, like paneed veal in meuniere sauce or a casserole of fried eggplant, crabmeat and shrimp.
With the loss of Sid-Mar's, no Bucktown restaurant offers a view of the lake or unobstructed access to its cooling breezes. To reconstruct that West End memory, the only thing to do is to visit one of the neighborhood's seafood markets along Lake Avenue. Get an order of hot boiled crabs or shrimp, buy a six pack of beer, cross to the unlucky side of the 17th Street Canal and take a perch on the shattered cement railings of West End Park. The lake and clouds and sun will put on their show for you alone.
- Cheryl Gerber
- On the Bucktown side of the 17th Street Canal, Deanie's is still a busy seafood house.