STREETCAR: Canal at Carrollton
Li’l Ray’s had become the center of the universe. Located on South Carrollton Avenue, just past the point where the City Park-bound bright red streetcars made the turn off Canal Street, the diner pulsated with the liveliness of the neighborhood and was even open 24 hours.
A year ago this month, Mid-City was the hottest neighborhood in town, and the corner of Canal and Carrollton was the nucleus. The new streetcars, different in their construction from those of the St. Charles line, moved silently along the tracks adding splashes of color to the landscape.
On each side of Li’l Ray’s two new restaurants were under construction. They would be in competition with the neighborhood’s grand culinary names; Venezia’s across the street and Mandina’s on Canal Street. Pho Tau Bay, the West Bank Vietnamese success story, had opened a restaurant alongside Angelo Brocato’s, bringing even more customers to the already packed purveyor of coffee and ice cream.
Two businesses had been in the neighborhood since the 1930s. One was the Hibernia Bank on one corner of Canal and South Carrollton. When the original bank building opened at that location, the company didn’t know what to call the new neighborhood. A contest to name the area was held among bank employees, one of whom noticed that the corner was about half way between the lake and the river and thus suggested the winning name: Mid-City.
Manuel’s Hot Tamale’s was the other stalwart. Quietly sold from a window on North Carrollton, the business existed in a time warp even with Juan’s Flying Burrito staring from across the street and Garce’s Mexican/Cuban restaurant a few blocks away. Nothing could subdue the mighty Manuel’s tamale, at least that’s what we thought.
There were four Middle-Eastern restaurants in the neighborhood; Mona’s, the Jerusalem Deli, the Mediterranean Cafe and Fellini’s. In addition to Mandina’s, there were two other New Orleans neighborhood restaurants (defined here as places where the menu included poor-boys and pasta was still called spaghetti). One was Katie’s (which seemed especially popular with cops) and the other was Liuzza’s, where if you ordered a root beer in a frozen mug the waitress would yell to the bar, “draw a frozen!”
High-end dining could be achieved at Chateaubriand, a French steak house operated by the truly French Gerard and Evelyn Crozier, or Christian’s, located in a former church, which had the feel of Galatorie’s.
One of my favorite spots was Michael’s Mid-City Grill, a mostly burger and baked potato place with little that was fancy, but the mood was cozy. Stretching out in one of the back booths while sipping a Sazerac, which Fred, Michael’s partner, knew how to sweeten to individual tastes, was one of my favorite ways to relax. The walls were decorated with framed pictures of customers who had ordered a Big Bucks Burger, the house specialty which, for a mere $125, came with a bottle of Dom Peringnon champagne. Most often the Big Bucks were ordered for a special occasion including one customer who had a fling right before leaving for federal prison. One of my goals in life was to one day have an occasion to order the burger, though hopefully not on the way to the big house.
A year ago this month Canal and Carrollton could have won an award as a model neighborhood – not so historic as to be touristy, not so elegant as to be pricey, but just right – a bouncy, thriving, growing crossroads.
Then it ended. Land that had been developed from the swamps was conquered by the water.
Other neighborhoods were hit worse than Mid-City but that doesn’t lessen the pain. Some restaurants, mostly the Middle-Eastern ones, have returned. Li’l Ray’s will be replaced by a diner called Roosters. Mandina’s and Brocato’s say they will be back. Chateaubriand is gone for good and so is Michael’s, cozy booths and all.
Each of the 23 new red streetcars was flooded. RTA says it will take a million dollars a piece to repair them. Meanwhile, the faded green St. Charles cars are now running along Canal Street, some making the turn at Carrollton. The trolleys tell the story: The neighborhood’s color is dimmed.
A sign near City Park once called the neighborhood “the heart of the city.” Now the neighborhood needs a pacemaker and the pace is slow. It took decades for Canal and Carrollton to achieve its glory, and only one day to lose it. Somewhere in the near future most of what was will be back, and that will be a true occasion for a Big Bucks burger – if only there was one to be had.