New Orleans witnessed a magnitude of change overnight that it might otherwise have taken an entire generation to work upon our touchstones of home. Restaurants that seemed timeless, and maybe even permanently fixed in their ways, were part of that as well.
As we mark another Katrina anniversary, some of them vividly illustrate a dynamic we can sum up as "the same, but different."
After Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures, it took the famous Mid-City restaurant Mandina's almost a year and a half to rebuild. But after word got around that Mandina’s was open again, it took the regulars about five seconds to resume their preferred spots along the restaurant’s bar.
There are no seats at the bar in Mandina’s, but there has always been a gang of familiar faces who congregate there, elbow on the bar top, eye on the door waiting for a buddy to report in for the evening. They’re as much a fixture at Mandina’s as the Maraschino cherries that bob in the restaurant’s Old Fashioned cocktails, the longtime specialty here. That bar ended up in a different location within Mandina's pink Canal Street building after Katrina. In fact, all the dining rooms were rearranged somewhat in the rebuild, and new touches abound. And still its regulars found their old roost as if by instinct, almost as if nothing had changed.
But with Katrina, New Orleans witnessed a magnitude of change overnight that it might otherwise have taken an entire generation to work upon our touchstones of home. Restaurants that seemed timeless, and maybe even permanently fixed in their ways, were part of that as well, and this week, as we mark another Katrina anniversary, some of them vividly illustrate a dynamic we can sum up as “the same, but different.”
In a way, these old institutions have become a new type of New Orleans restaurant — places that somehow were able to upgrade and even modernize a bit during their Katrina rebuilds, while keeping intact the character that made them feel important to begin with. They debunk the curious but widespread notion that authenticity means not changing at all, even to the point of letting things fall apart.
Post-Katrina Mandina’s is one example. Another is Charlie's Steakhouse, which was one of the most peculiar restaurants in a city with no shortage of oddball institutions. There was no printed menu here, and waiters might just dictate what you would have for dinner anyway. The oversized steaks were served on piping-hot iron plates that smoked up and sizzled fiercely as waiters rushed them to tables. After the flood, the family owners retired and Charlie’s remained shuttered for years. New owners were eventually able to buy the restaurant and finally reopened Charlie's in 2008. Is it exactly the same as it was in the summer of 2005? No. Almost everything inside is newly built, and of course there are new people running the show. But they understand the tradition and character of the old Charlie’s, and they channel that in this updated edition. As usual, you’ll never see a menu and you will hear your snapping, crackling steak as it’s rushed across the dining room like a fussing infant to its waiting mama.
And then there’s Rocky & Carlo’s, the indispensable Chalmette restaurant and de facto community center that had to rebuild not just once from the Katrina floods, but again in 2012 after a devastating fire. It looks a little different after the bottom-to-top repairs, but there’s no mistaking the baked macaroni and cheese with brown gravy and the stuffed bell peppers. We have many ways to measure our city’s journey since Katrina. At restaurants like these, it’s visit by visit and bite by bite.
3800 Canal St., New Orleans, 504-482-9179; www.mandinas.com
4510 Dryades St., New Orleans, 504-895-9705; www.charliessteakhousenola.com
Rocky & Carlo’s
613 W. St. Bernard Hwy., Chalmette, 504-279-8323