I bought my house Uptown just a few blocks from Franky & Johnny’s in 1996 and my daughter Cecilia, now 17, literally cut her teeth on their stuffed artichokes, fried chicken and fried bell pepper rings.
Thirteen years ago when I started dating my husband Andrew, who also lived in the neighborhood, it made sense to suggest dinner there. “N-O to the hell no,” he said. “It’s filthy. No way.”
I knew he was right: For years those of us with lower standards – pretty much everyone except him – had ignored the musty smells and sticky floors in the barroom just inside the front door, the chipped Formica tables and the torn, ketchup-stained menus. We packed the house and averted our eyes as the occasional multi-legged appetite suppressant scampered across the worn floor in the back dining room as we cheerily munched through piles of spicy boiled crawfish, heaping platters of crisp fried seafood, smothered pork chops, bowls of dark-roux etouffee and slabs of peanut butter pie.
Despite its dubious shortcomings F&J’s was Uptown New Orleans’ only quintessential family-style seafood restaurant/neighborhood hangout/sports bar. The atmosphere left a whole lot to be desired but the food was always good, the prices reasonable, the jukebox stocked with local music, the parking ample and the comfort that comes with the familiar was guaranteed. It was the nucleus of the neighborhood.
Last winter the doomsday bell finally tolled on F&J’s when the operators of the restaurant ran afoul of health inspections and they were evicted by business owner, John Morreale Jr., whose family had owned it since 1942. The doors closed right around Mardi Gras.
After muddling our way through crawfish season alone, new operators Anthony Macaluso and Woody Vall s reopened the r estaurant as Frankie & Johnny’s the day after Thanksg iving. Windows uncovered by the removal of faux wood paneling shed light on a gleaming renovation that includes pristine restrooms with level floors, a new digital jukebox and the addition of outdoor seating and an oyster bar. The same reliable local standards – seemingly prepared the same exact way – are once again sustaining the relieved masses that go there for so much more than the food.
In recent years Rocky & Carlo’s has rebuilt following both flood (2005) and fire (2013). I recall going back to the Chalmette institution immediately after its post-Katrina re-opening in 2006. We stood in line with our trays laden, cafeteria style, with veal Parmesan, lasagna, friend catfish and rich macaroni and cheese made from thick Buccatini pasta and drenched with thick red gravy alongside rolls of b eef Bruciolone and little dishes of bread puddin g and spumoni ice cream. When we reached the cashier to pay there were gold boxes stacked alongside the register and they were filled with curious-looking little necklaces made entirely from Fava beans and gold beads. It turns out the “necklaces” were rosaries a regular customer had made and was selling to raise money to properly re-bury his mother, who had been lifted from her resting place during Katrina’s flooding.
That pretty much sums up the vibe at Rocky’s, which despite its justifiable fame, is really all about the immediate community in which it exists. If more evidence is needed, just check out the seats of honor reserved closest to the buffet line for the guys who come for lunch every day from the Chalmette refinery across the street.
Pastry Chef Rhonda Ruckman of The Link Restaurant Group has created a line of spe cialty King Cakes for sale at Cochon Butcher until the day af ter Mardi Gras. The gorgeous cakes, which pack little surprise plastic pigs in lieu of the traditional baby, are available in 6-inch (individual, $7.25) and 10-inch (for sharing if you must, $30) sizes, in fun flavors including cinnamon, chocolate-peanut butter, apple and Creole cream cheese, lemon Doberge, and the “Elvis,” which is filled with peanut butter, banana and cured bacon, topped with marshmallow.
Cochon Butcher: 930 Tchoupitoulas St. | 588-7675 | CochonButcher.com
Frankie & Johnny’s: 321 Arabella St. | 243-1234
Rocky & Carlo’s: 613 W. Saint Bernard Highway, Chalmette | 279-8323