New Orleans restaurant culture is abuzz with different flavors, new fashions and even a new lexicon these days. Some places set the pace and others struggle to keep up. But then there are those that ignore them altogether, and in some cases stand apart, by essentially standing still. Leni's Café is one example.
To learn the new flavors, fashions and even vocabulary running through New Orleans restaurant culture, you need to survey the Bywater, the Freret Street business corridor and certain stretches of Magazine Street. But just walk into Leni’s Café and you can experience an analog time capsule from that culture’s past, and get a square meal to boot.
Leni’s is a narrow diner hidden in plain sight in the Warehouse District. It’s a place where the vintage, clanking cash register rings up meals that rarely exceed $10 and where a trip to the washroom in back means edging yourself around the sputtering griddle and the pail of oysters waiting for the fryer. Stainless steel coolers line the marble back counter and faded Saints posters evoke the days when “bleeding Black and Gold” actually hurt.
The pastel-colored plastic plates that arrive at your table could have been loaded by an indulgent aunt, one who knew you were coming and knows what you like. It’s about smothered liver, hamburger steak, fried chicken and veal parmesan with sides like canned beets or hammy greens wedged in just to make sure you get your vegetables.
Places like Leni’s were once so common downtown they rarely drew much notice. Now they stand out for practically standing still in time. But their numbers are dwindling. One of Leni’s peers, Gregory & Pete’s, closed after a 40-year run in 2011 when developers started a sweeping rehab of its Baronne Street building. Its old address is being turned into a pan-Asian restaurant called Lucky Rooster while the latest franchise from the Jimmy John’s sandwich shop chain is going in next door.
Gregory & Pete’s and Leni’s shared more than a format. Their owners are related by marriage, and these men are part of a long continuum of Greek immigrants who went straight into the restaurant business. It’s a common tale across America, though the New Orleans chapter involves red beans and roast beef po-boys rather than gyros and Greek salads.
Pete Patselikos bought Leni’s Café in 1978 from another Greek man who had run it since the 1950s and who claimed it had been a restaurant since around the First World War. Patselkos runs the griddle, while his wife Despina handles service.
Patselikos didn’t change the diner’s name when he took over, and he’s changed little else since. That’s because his customers come for a particular notion of New Orleans comfort food that was codified long before he arrived and still runs through his specials schedule like clockwork. It’s a mix of anywhere-America diner fare (meatloaf, baked chicken, chicken noodle soup) and specific New Orleans staples (hot sausage with butter beans on Wednesdays, seafood platters on Fridays).
The kitchen gets cracking early, usually by 6:30 a.m., stacking up airy pancakes the color of egg yolks, superlative hash browns griddled to crisp sheets of crunch and grits and biscuits that all arrive thoroughly pre-buttered.
Leni’s periodically fills with students from the high school across the street. Otherwise the crowd is a blue collar-meets-white collar mix of people who work nearby. They all look and act like regulars, but then anyone with a taste for old-fashioned New Orleans lunch joints will feel at home even on the first visit.
741 Baronne St., New Orleans, 504-523-0069