In these times of dueling sensibilities, when we’re eager for a change of pace yet wary of ever more uncertainty, adventures close to home are welcome.
Old Gretna was established as Mechanikham in 1836 when wealthy landowner, Nicholas Noel Destrehan, hired surveyor Benjamin Buisson to divide his swath of land on the river into lots. Buisson’s original symmetrical plan created a two-block-wide settlement with Huey P. Long Avenue (originally Copernicus Avenue) at the center and one street on either side (now Newton and Weyer streets). Mechanikham quickly became home to many German immigrants who played a vital role in the city’s development, and whose descendants became some of Gretna’s most prominent citizens.
Nearly two centuries later the area has evolved into a fascinating, vaguely mysterious community. Like Uptown New Orleans, Old Gretna is loaded with historic homes, many of the Eastlake style, in quaint neighborhoods that hug the Mississippi River. The primary centers of commerce – Huey P. Long Avenue, Lafayette Street and Kepler Street – are dotted with quaint shops, restaurants, bars and cafes.
What is now Cafe 615 at Da Wabbit opened in 1948 as a drive-in diner, easily identifiable by its original, iconic Bugs Bunny-themed neon sign. Since 2004 the restaurant, a hugely popular spot for lunch and on weekends, has been owned and operated by Eric and Dawn Savoie, who run the kitchen and front of the house, respectively.
Hearty, fresh, abundant daily plate lunch specials range from red beans and rice with smoked sausage or pork chop on Mondays for $10, to white beans and rice with smothered rabbit for $12 on Thursdays. A connoisseur of fried chicken, I’ve never encountered one finer than that served here. Kept juicy on the inside by a long soak in brine then battered and cooked until hot, golden and shaggy on the outside, $14 will score you half of a bird served atop buttered toast with a choice of two fresh sides.
In 2018, Jimmy Cho relocated his celebrated Banana Blossom Thai restaurant from the strip mall where it opened in 2009 to a larger, decidedly more upscale space he renovated at the corner of Lafayette and Ninth streets.
An abundance of natural light, a sleek color palate, bright bundles of fresh flowers and sparkling chandeliers set the tone for a date night or an adventure with friends that starts at the bar with selections from the lengthy cocktail list presented at the elegant backlit bar. Appetizers include crispy rice paper pork rolls with Thai glass noodles and mushrooms served with a sweet-sour chili peanut sauce that also accompanies the excellent fried coconut shrimp. Chiang Mai egg noodles arrive in a yellow curry while the signature BB Curry pairs delicate vermicelli noodles with a feisty red sauce.
A few blocks away, Gretna Depot is the area’s cozy neighborhood hangout with a massive menu that roves from Cajun hot tamales and boudin balls to fried seafood, gumbo, 20 different burgers and a changing roster of daily plate lunch specials. Each day brings a different drink special and half-price appetizers (of which there are 17 from which to choose) from 3-7 p.m. On Thursdays the special pricing is offered all day.
Across Huey Long Avenue, Amore is an absolutely gorgeous bakery and cafe featuring decadent hand-crafted cakes, pastries, gelato and breakfast and luncheon specials from Chef Sage Spicuzza, who has operated the business with her mother, Bonnie Pecot, and her sister, Calli Boullosa, since late 2016. Spicuzza makes the spectacular array of Italian and French pastries, including buttery croissants, Danishes, flaky Napoleons, beignets and zeppoles. She graduated from Delgado’s culinary program then went to work for Angelo Brocato’s and, later, the Hotel Monteleone.
Pecot is an enthusiastic decorator who lavishes her passion upon both the interior and exterior of Amore. The elegant space is a don’t-miss for major holidays – Halloween in particular.
The city also holds an exceptional farmers’ market every Saturday morning on Huey P. Long Avenue.