Eating with the West End Blues

New Orleans, LA – Even before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans folks of a certain generation could tell tales of a restaurant scene in the lakefront's West End area that was hard for younger people to imagine.

Where some of us saw a marina, a parking lot and just a handful of seafood joints, they remembered restaurant after restaurant, many of them built on stilts over Lake Pontchartrain.

People from generations back further still could tell stories of the West End as a summer resort, with music clubs, dance halls and bathing pavilions, along with many restaurants. The 1920s-era scene here was even the inspiration for the jazz classic "West End Blues."

Well now, people in the generation that came of age just before Katrina can tell their own stories, and describe an area their kids may find hard to reconcile with the West End of today.

We can tell them about Bruning's, where we ate oysters from ice-filled platters and whole flounders broiled in butter. They can reminisce about crossing a footbridge over the canal to Sid-Mar's, where we had trays of spicy crabs on a screened-in porch and watched shrimp boats bobbing at their piers. We can recall the hot crawfish at Jaeger's Beer Garden, where kids ran rampant and everyone ate too much.

No one can quite pinpoint when the old lakefront scene of past generations disappeared. But the West End as some of us knew it vanished precisely on Aug. 29, 2005, the day Katrina hit.

Bruning's and Jaeger's were wiped out and today's youngsters will need a healthy dose of imagination to visualize what Sid-Mar's was all about. The narrow spit of land off Orpheum Avenue that it called home has been swallowed by new flood control gates for the 17th Street Canal.

And yet, should the old seasonal urge for a visit to the West End hit, a trip here can still amount to a seafood safari, albeit on different terms. There remains a restaurant scene in the West End area itself, though with the exception of a chain restaurant on the lake these places are tucked behind a floodwall, well out of sight of the water.

So to reconstruct a West End memory of hot seafood and cool breezes, there is, what I call, the boiled New Orleans picnic option. Across the canal, Bucktown still hosts a small, concentrated cluster of local seafood markets, and one single block of Lake Avenue here proves a golden triangle for provisioning a do-it-yourself seafood spread.

There's Schaefer Seafood and Captain Sid's, just doors apart from each other, while across the street Deanie's Seafood Market is attached to the huge restaurant of the same name. Each shop has its partisan devotees, but they all measure out the same local seafood by the scoop, sack and crate, shifting from crab, to shrimp, to oyster to crawfish as the seasons dictate.

Load up on the best of what's in stock, top off with refreshments, and head back over to West End Park, where the shattered cement railings, vast, empty parking lot and end-of-the road fishing points can make de facto picnic perches. It's not exactly like sitting in an old, screened dining hall, but the lake and the clouds and the setting sun still put on their day-ending show, even if you're the only one there eating in the audience.

Buctktown Seafood Markets

Captain Sid's Seafood
1700 Lake Ave., Metairie, 504-831-2840

Deanie's Seafood Market
1713 Lake Ave., Metairie, 504-835-4638

Schaefer Seafood
1726 Lave Ave., Metairie, 504-833-3973