A Lunch Legacy in Hibernation

New Orleans, La. –

For generations, the CBD has supported a string of small, modest, thoroughly old-fashioned lunch spots, places that mix the nostalgic feel of vintage diners with the dependable touchstones of casual New Orleans cooking, from red bean Mondays to fried seafood Fridays. They're everyday places that uphold local traditions more out of rhythm than reverence, though for some they're as much a part of New Orleans business life as conference calls, coffee breaks and rush hour, and they supply a concentrated reminder of the special peculiarity of our city.

One of the great, old examples of these restaurants recently closed its doors after more than 40 years, a consequence of the rapid change now sweeping the CBD. Though its owner pledges to return, at the very least this means one piece of local lunch history has entered a prolonged hibernation.

Gregory & Pete's Restaurant on Baronne Street served speedy breakfasts, decent po-boys and bargain plate lunches in a setting so richly detailed the entire thing could have been carted off to the Smithsonian. The mechanical cash register cranking loudly with each sale, the Formica tables set with ketchup and Tabasco, the plastic divider plates keeping the day's vegetables apart from the baked chicken or shrimp stew, the cheerful sign reminding the lunch crowd that "we sell ice cold beer!," the rapid-fire table service and overheard hollering from the galley kitchen, even the diverse clientele sporting hardhats, corporate ID badges or neckties - it all spoke of a New Orleans lunch culture before fast food and national chains took root. It's a culture that still persists at nearby low-key nooks like P&G Restaurant & Bar and Leni's Cafe, both on Baronne Street, which, like Gregory & Pete's, serve deeply traditional New Orleans food with a Greek accent.

The interior of Gregory & Pete's was painted a pale shade of spearmint, which owner Pete Michailakis chose to remind him of the Aegean Sea around his native Greece. Pete immigrated to New Orleans in 1963, washed dishes for a few years, and bought his restaurant, then simply called Gregory's, from founder Gregory Moore in 1967. He added his name to the shingle. Pete recalls that when he started out here a plate of red beans cost 20 cents and coffee was a nickel. The CBD changed dramatically as skyscrapers rose and parking lots proliferated, though soon the oil bust of the 1980s hit. Offices downsized and hotels multiplied. Some tenets of downtown lunch culture changed along the way too. By the early 1990s, for instance, Pete added delivery service as customers increasingly told him they no longer had time to leave the office for lunch.

Gregory & Pete's was in a cluster of contiguous townhouses that a local is now converting into a dozen apartments, part of a wave of new residential redevelopment now underway in the CBD. Pete intends to reopen his restaurant in a ground floor retail space in the development once construction work wraps up in November or so.

While no one can guess precisely when Gregory & Pete's might reopen, it's a safe bet that regulars will know precisely what's on the menu whichever day they walk back in.

Gregory & Pete's Restaurant (515 Baronne St., phone n.a.)