Despite rapid growth, historic Mandeville, Madisonville, Abita Springs and Covington retain the atmosphere customarily associated with the Old South. With ancient moss-draped oak trees, mature gardens, elegant 19th-century mansions and cottages and charming restaurants dotting pleasant, easily navigable streets, these small towns continue to offer tranquil respite from life in the busy city.
A recent foray across our native pond revealed a diverse collection of owner and chef-operated eateries that are worth the drive.
Liz Munson named her Where Y’at Diner appropriately: The lady is a proud Y’at. Everything about her namesake restaurant reflects her vivid personality, which defined an introduction to the food service industry that began at Foxy Balls snowball stand in West End. Her cheerful breakfast and lunch spot in Old Mandeville has a menu that ranges from local standards such as crawfish etouffée to more ambitious options like a Napoleon of fried green tomatoes with layers of pepper jack cheese and a shrimp-and-crawfish cream sauce topping. It is easy to love this place for the possibility of a delicious breakfast for under $5 bucks (toasted, buttered biscuits or creamy grits topped with roast beef debris gravy), decadent double-stuffed chocolate-covered sandwich cookies and Liz “Yeah, Baby” herself, who’s always there chatting guests up over the Formica tables.
Life changed the day Guy Fieri of the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” paid chef Louie and Ginger Finnan a visit at Louie & The Redheaded Lady, their roadhouse restaurant in Old Mandeville. Their humble diner, serving scrumptious, inventive takes on the New Orleans-style foods Louie grew up eating, experienced explosive growth overnight. Loosen your belt for the Oysters la Luzianne (fried oysters doused with heaps of garlic, butter, parsley and cheese served on the half-shell) that made them famous, and Louie’s “Stairway to Heaven,” fried eggplant medallions with crab cakes, boiled shrimp, crabmeat and a sherry cream sauce. Ginger, a passionate jewelry designer, also sells her colorful, feminine Louisiana-centric creations at the restaurant.
After many years of use as annex to the nearby courthouse, the historic Southern Hotel, circa 1907, recently reopened in downtown Covington after an extensive restoration. The much anticipated 42-room full service luxury hotel includes a spa and Ox Lot 9, a farm-to-table restaurant helmed by chef Jeffrey Hansell, a kitchen alum of Commander’s Palace. Think seared speckled trout with parsnips and lemon and honeysuckle crème brulée. It is anticipated that the chic hotel will once again serve as a centerpiece to an area now clustered with worthwhile restaurants.
Situated across East Boston Street from Ox Lot 9 is del Porto Ristorante, married chef/owners and two-time James Beard Award nominees Torre and David Solazzo’s Tuscan technique meets California fresh bistro. For 12 years they’ve been turning out their divine, pillowy handmade pastas paired with screamingly fresh local produce and daring flavor combinations that always seem to work. The utterly impeccable crispy Berkshire pork belly with gigantic grilled shrimp, heirloom tomatoes, chili-mint-orange vinaigrette, fried basil and garlic chips is reason enough to make haste across the Causeway.
Another fine reason is right around the corner is Lola. Working from a vintage railroad caboose turned kitchen, husband-and-wife chefs Keith Frentz and Nealy Crawford-Frentz create fine Southern cuisine with local produce and seafood. Excellent soups, salads, sandwiches and baked goods at thrifty prices (two-course daily plate lunch specials are $9) make this a casual luncheon hotspot for weekdays. On Friday and Saturday evenings the diminutive restaurant is transformed with candlelight, flowers and twinkling crystal glasses and the food becomes decidedly more complex and upscale.
Jan Lantrip of the English Tea Room was a compounding chemist before she opened her tidy teashop where she uses the menu to celebrate the rarely explored health benefits of drinking and cooking with tea. At least one tea-infused dish is offered on the menu each day. The tomato soup flavored with lapsang souchong is smoky and soothing.
The English Tea Room: 734 Rutland St., Covington, (985) 898-3988, EnglishTeaRoom.com
Liz’s Where Y’at Diner: 2500 Florida St., Mandeville, (985) 626-8477, LizsWhereYatDiner.com
Lola: 517 N. New Hampshire St., Covington, (98) 892-4992, LolaCovington.com
Louie & The Redheaded Lady: 2820 East Causeway Approach, Mandeville, (985) 626-6044, LouieAndTheRedheadLady.com
Ox Lot 9: 428 E. Boston St., Covington, (228) 216-1806
del Porto Ristorante: 501 E. Boston St., Covington, (985) 875-1006, DelPortoRistorante.com
The Southern Hotel: 428 E. Boston St., Covington, (844) 866-1907, SouthernHotel.com