New Orleans is a city of distinct neighborhoods each with its own personality, flavor and favorite haunts. Yet even food writers can slip into a rut of covering the same beats – Warehouse District, Magazine Street and the Quarter – so much so that they miss what else is happening around town. Therefore, I was happy to come across Café Navarre, which opened my eyes to a whole new banquette upon which I could lounge away a long weekend brunch.
Perched on the corner of Navarre Avenue and Vicksburg Street, it is the kind of anchor every neighborhood should have: affordable, loaded with both character and eggs Benedict, and staffed by friendly locals. The overall feel is a direct expression of its owner, Heather Riccobono, whose family has been running a clutch of restaurants in New Orleans for three generations.
But back in 2005 Heather was a bit aimless. “I was bartending, goofing off and wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with my life,” she recalled, Then she came across the flooded former poor boy shop and knew what her next move was going to be. “My boyfriend, brother-in-law and I bought the property together,” she said. “They did the dirty work and rebuilt it.” With the space renovated, Heather put the concept and menu together and opened the doors in 2007. And just as she had hoped, the neighborhood recovered. “It didn’t just come back; it came back with a vengeance and it is thriving,” she said.
The approachable menu is built around a core of breakfast, lunch and brunch fare – think crowd-pleasers like pancakes, poor boys and omelets – jazzed up with the appeal of adult beverages (Tito’s Bloody Mary, anyone?). Personally, my eyes were drawn to a section devoted solely to glorious variations on eggs Benedict. I’d recommend the eggs cochon, a split English muffin upon which is heaped a pile of shaggy pulled pork, gently poached eggs and a generous dollop of hollandaise. The pork, hollandaise and egg yolk combine for a triple whammy of richness. Cubed potatoes (or grits, for those so inclined) guarantee you won’t go home hungry. If you’d like to temper things a bit, try the turkey avocado version.
From the lunch menu, you can opt for a decadent roast beef poor boy, slow-roasted for eight hours. Lovers of Cubans will dive into her version with pulled pork, ham and pickles. It is pressed and comes out crispy on outside and hot and melty on the inside.
And the menu is well balanced – there are plenty of lighter, healthier options as well. The Mediterranean Omelet, with spinach, artichoke, tomato and feta is one such choice. “My favorite thing is our turkey avocado panini – I eat that all the time,” says Riccobono. There is also a kids’ menu, making it an easy choice for families.
Café Navarre is a buzzy place – it is especially popular on weekends and draws not just from the neighborhood, but also from people visiting the Cemeteries and City Park – so get there early to avoid the wait. Going into late summer look for an upgrade to the patio area, which will bring additional seating, lights and fans, making al fresco dining even more appealing.
If the last name Riccobono doesn’t ring a bell, it should – Heather’s family has been running restaurants in the city for three generations. The Peppermill on Severn and Panola Street Café hold special places in many a local’s heart. Working in the family restaurants was a rite of passage for her, so it is not a surprise to see her at the helm of her own place now. Along with Café Navarre, where she is joined in the kitchen by Mike Goss (pictured above), Heather owns Café Sala along with her brother, which is a more upscale lounge and café out on West End by the lakefront.
Café Navarre, 800 Navarre Avenue, Faubourg Navarre, 483-8828. B, L, Brunch daily; cafenavarre.com.
The neighborhood of Navarre is nestled between the Cemeteries and City Park. It is a leafy, mostly residential area that hides a couple of culinary surprises. One such is Rosedale, an eclectic restaurant established by Susan Spicer and built in a former jail. Its unique takes on southern and regional fare make it a fun choice and also one that doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves.