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New Orleans Best of Dining 2012

Top Places, People and Discoveries

(page 3 of 9)

Honor Roll | JoAnn Clevenger
A swirl of people

In late August, JoAnn Clevenger was bunkered down at her “hurricane house” in Mississippi waiting out Hurricane Isaac, when a friend called to give her the news.

“JoAnn, it’s raining inside Upperline,” he said.

Clevenger’s stomach dropped. The Times-Picayune had just awarded her restaurant four beans. Now a hurricane had peeled her roof back like the lid on a tin of sardines. The office on the second floor flooded, causing the ceiling in the dining room below to collapse. For most people, it would have been devastating.

“At one moment I was high on the review, and then the next I was way down here,” Clevenger says. “But that’s life, right? Highs and lows. It really has been a roller coaster all these years.”

In January, Upperline will turn 30. Few restaurants are as closely associated with the personality of their owner. An energetic spitfire in a bun and glasses, Clevenger holds court in the rambling yellow townhouse that over the decades has collected as many accolades as it has paintings. Popular locally and nationally, it straddles a unique spot at a literary, culinary and artistic crossroad.

These characteristics also define Clevenger.

A voracious reader, Clevenger grew up the daughter of Louisiana sharecroppers. Early on, she found her escape through cookbooks and magazines. The colorful photos of artfully arranged party foods enraptured her, taking her to places she couldn’t have otherwise imagined.

While in high school, her mother became seriously ill and was brought to Charity Hospital. Clevenger came along to care for her.

Her mother passed away a year and a half later, and Clevenger stayed in New Orleans. An intelligent and bookish young woman, she finished high school here and then entered Tulane University on scholarship, but found it not to her taste. She was soon drawn into the vibrant cultural scene of the French Quarter of the late 1950s and ’60s.

The French Quarter back then was a far different animal. “You could go to the poultry market on Decatur Street and buy a duck. They’d take the feathers off right there,” Clevenger recalls. Possessing an uncommon combination of bohemian energy and business savvy, she began her entrepreneurial career with a bar tucked into a carriageway on Bourbon Street. Called Andy’s, the cover charge was a quarter and it soon attracted the likes of Ritchie Havens. “It was a wonderful time,” she says. “We made absolutely no money.”

After Andy’s, Clevenger sniffed out a big break. “An ex-Filipino yo-yo champion owned the lease on this bar,” she says, managing this statement with a straight face. “I bought it and it became The Abbey.” People thought she was crazy, because Decatur Street at the time was a backwater. But she dressed it up with stained glass and, in a distributing coup, began selling Guinness on tap.

“Nobody in the southeast U.S. had it at the time,” she says, laughing. “Local distributors didn’t want to bring it in. So I talked to New York and told them I would pay the rent on the storage for it, and they said OK.” Along with the stout, she also brought in the Sunday New York Times, which was nearly impossible to find in New Orleans back then. The hooks were baited and people came.

The Abbey was a hit, especially with media types.

Clevenger’s stories could fill volumes, with other jobs that include running a fleet of flower carts before being sued by the state for operating without a florist’s license. So when she opened Upperline in 1982, it was primed to be an interesting place It has lived up to that promise.

Other than Isaac, the most recent storm to beset it was finding a replacement for her longtime chef Ken Smith, who left in 2010.

Clevenger cycled through a few chefs, none of whom clicked, until a friend helped her rethink the interview process. It was then that she found Dave Bridges, who came on in September. While the menu retains many of the defining legacy dishes, such as the Fried Green Tomato with Shrimp Remoulade, Bridges has added an infusion of new ideas and contemporary twists. This includes a recent play on muffulettas, featuring sautéed veal sweetbreads plated with burrata and finished with olive salad, as well as an inventive Ya Ka Mein featuring foie gras.

At Upperline, guests will find Clevenger’s passions served with gregarious hospitality. “You see how good New Orleans has been to me?” she says. “Every city has interesting people ... In the 19th century, the people who didn’t fit in came here. The black sheep.

The creative ones. And this swirl of people still dances on today. Aren’t we all just so lucky to be a part of it?”

– J.F.

Upperline, 1413 Upperline St., 891-9822, Upperline.com

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