A View From Bruning’s: West End’s Glory Days
Sometimes neighboring political bodies join together to forge historic agreements. Few are as anticipated by those who remember the old days along the lake as the efforts by Jefferson Parish’s and New Orleans’ councils to redevelop West End. The area is situated on the lake’s edge at a spot where the two parishes meet. Once it was a major dining and entertainment location enhanced by gentle Lake Pontchartrain splashing at its sea wall. But on a couple of occasions the lake turned furious and pummeled the area washing away structures and memories.
Bruning’s was the last of the classic early West End restaurants to survive a legacy that once included Fitzgerald’s, Swanson’s and Bart’s. West End was struggling before Katrina, but Bruning’s, which had already been hit hard by Hurricane Georges in 1998, made a noble stand – until there was nothing left to stand on.
Having opened in 1859, Bruning’s was the third oldest restaurant in New Orleans. For most of that time, the restaurant operated out of a spacious wooden building with a magnificent bar. That structure, with its dining room that extended over the water, was whacked by Georges. After Georges, the restaurant moved into a two-story neighboring building; and there was at least hope that the old building would one day be restored. After Katrina, neither stood.
There was as much local color at West End as as there were blue-tipped crabs in the lake. Sometimes boys would playfully be jumping from the footbridge that spanned the adjacent 17th Street canal, or fishermen would be dangling a line. On the other side was Bucktown, in its prime the last of the old fishing villages. As the day ended fishing boats would chug back to the dock. The sight of gliding gulls against the backdrop of the setting sun was painted by nature, but I realize now that it was too picturesque to last. It didn’t.
Standing grandly on the opposite site of the canal was the circular wooden mansion that the original Captain Bruning built. It was crowned by an observation room on the top. I would fantasize about one day relocating to that building – my office, the observation room, of course. The home was destroyed by Katrina, but the movie “The Big Easy” preserves it visually as the setting in a fais-do-do scene with lots of dancin’ and fiddilin’ on the wrap-around porch, back when the neighborhood had something to dance about.
Not every restaurant does Sazeracs well, but Bruning’s did, serving the drink filled to the top of the glass, rather than a splash as some restaurants do, and delivered chilled.
A window seat on the west side overlooked pelicans perched on the piers that dotted the harbor. Like us on the inside, the pelicans too were looking for a fish dinner.
This was one of the last places that prepared food in the tradition of West End restaurants. A signature dish was stuffed flounder served on a bed of toast with chubby fries on the side and a modest green salad with a dollop of mayo on top. Other temptations were many including broiled catfish with a serving of new potatoes, or a crispy soft-shell crab, fresh from the lake, its claws juicy and its body providing a range of textures. A cup of seafood gumbo was light enough so that we would not be, like the flounder, stuffed before the meal.
Lord, I wish I could be sipping a Sazerac, breaking off a soft-shell claw and watching the sunset at Brunings now.
We never knew how suddenly the sun would set.
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BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
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