The revival of a classic backstreet seafood restaurant helps restore more than just a roster of familiar dishes.
It’s been six months now since Frankie & Johnny’s Restaurant reopened, and still you can spot the people coming back in for the first time. They’re the ones giving this classic old backstreet seafood joint the closest examination, with something more like proprietary concern than mere curiosity. This is what happens when people feel a personal connection to a particular restaurant, and I have to count myself in that number.
Frankie & Johnny’s has been in business in one rendition or another since 1942 near the Uptown riverfront. Some people have histories and traditions with this restaurant reaching back generations. My own is a lot more recent by comparison.
I first ate at Frankie & Johnny’s 15 years ago this month. It was during a visit to New Orleans, not long before I moved to the city. A friend brought me along for a trip up Tchoupitoulas Street from my downtown hotel, through a fog of termites and the echo of river sounds. He taught me how to peel crawfish here and reassured me that, yes, that big crab leg did indeed belong in my gumbo bowl. He told me how much I’d enjoy living in New Orleans, and the table before us held very tangible evidence to back him up.
Later, as I settled into my adopted city, Frankie & Johnny’s became an ad hoc welcome center for a circle of my friends. It was the place we’d all take out-of-towners for an orientation meal on the New Orleans flavors they’d heard so much about. When some of those friends moved away, the restaurant was the customary send-off spot too, for that final meal before departing to places where Frankie & Johnny’s would not be possible.
You don’t quit a restaurant like that the first time the food lets you down, or when you notice it’s looking kind of grubby. Still, enough of that was overlooked for too long, and eventually Frankie & Johnny’s had gone beyond the pale. I stopped visiting or recommending it. When it closed early in 2013, the news came more as a pity than a shock.
But new operators soon took over and in November reopened the restaurant with a gleaming renovation and a management team well attuned to the balance of restoring its prospects and maintaining its character.
Not everything is the same. I miss the alligator soup. I miss the muffuletta and the crawfish pies. But the fried pepper rings remain essential. And, as usual, the best part of the perfunctory dinner salad is the spicy Cajun dressing. Get it on the side, keep it after they take away your salad plate and use it as a dip for the fried chicken, another Frankie & Johnny’s favorite. The layout is basically the same, but improved. I like the new patio seating up front and the new oyster bar in the corner. Meanwhile, the vastly improved beer selection shows how even the classic flavors of boiled seafood are lifted by the rising tide of craft beer. As long as we’re toasting fond memories, we might as well have something good in the glass.
Frankie & Johnny’s Restaurant
321 Arabella St., New Orleans, 504-243-1234; www.frankieandjohnnys.net
Franky & Johnnie’s serves lunch and dinner daily.