People around south Louisiana know better than most how the feeling of a special place can endure even after it's been wiped from the map. Sometimes it's just the recollection of happy times or meaningful occasions spent there, like at family homes now plowed under or churches or schools disappeared from a city's landscape. And sometimes a bit more remains, something tangible like a memento from a landmark destination now vanished.
This weekend, one extraordinary such example will make its public debut, offering an opportunity not just to get in touch with a piece of the pre-Katrina past but also to get a drink from it. On Saturday, April 17, the Southern Food & Beverage Museum holds a dedication ceremony for the original bar from Bruning's Restaurant.
The day includes a free, public symposium of food writers and researchers, gathered at the museum to celebrate a Southern food issue from the Arkansas-based magazine Oxford American, and also the latest book in the Cornbread Nation series, a compilation of Southern food writing. Following those symposium talks, the museum hosts a public reception around the resurrected bar from a lost but legendary local restaurant.
Bruning's was a landmark along the New Orleans lakefront. It got its start in 1859 when German immigrant Theodor Bruning opened the place in the West End. It long reigned as the third oldest restaurant in New Orleans, behind Antoine's and Tujague's, and for generations of locals Bruning's was a place for local seafood, cool breezes off the lake and, of course, a few rounds from the bar.
It was one of many seafood restaurants that joined countless camps built over Lake Pontchartrain and once honeycombed the water's edge with good-time places. They began to dwindle over the years, however, and when Hurricane Georges badly damaged the Bruning's building the whole operation was moved to a new building nearby. The old bar was patched up and reinstalled here too, and the Bruning's legacy continued until 2005, when Hurricane Katrina reduced the restaurant to splinters.
In the midst of immense devastation, the Bruning's family still collected the shattered pieces of their historic bar for eventual restoration. Last fall, they donated it all to the Southern Food & Beverage Museum, which gave the task of reassembling some 176 pieces of flood-damaged oak and cypress to local building contractor Gavin MacArthur. The job was made much harder because so much of the archival material collected over Bruning's past had been washed away. Imagine trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle without the benefit of the box top photo and you have an idea of the challenge.
The finished project still bears some scars from the bar's long and eventful history, but it was also rebuilt sturdy enough to allow practical use. Now at home in the museum's main hall, it will again serve its original purpose, as a place for people to knock back drinks and to have a good time together.
The Oxford American magazine and Cornbread Nation symposium is free and open to the public and begins at 1 p.m. on April 17. The Bruning's bar dedication begins at 5 p.m. If you have any old Bruning's memorabilia in your own souvenir stash, from drink coasters to matchbooks, consider bringing it along as a contribution to the museum and its new altar to Bruning's past.
Southern Food and Beverage Museum
1 Poydras St., New Orleans