2000s Archive

A New Orleans Original

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Dooky’s held another attraction back then. It was open late. In the early years it would be crowded at 4 a.m. Even years later, musicians would come after their gigs and Dooky Chase himself would regale them with stories of his days on the road.

Food in the South has always built bridges across virtually impassable political and social chasms. And just as the restaurant became a symbol of the potential inherent in an integrated New Orleans, Leah Chase became a bridge builder and a civic leader. This status gave her entrée into a segment of the white upper crust that had been relatively untouched by the gains of the post–civil rights era. And increasingly, members of the white establishment became her patrons.

“Most of the people I have been there with are very prominent in the community,” says Ella Brennan, the other matriarch of New Orleans restaurants. “They love Leah and they love the food.”

By the early 1980s, however, the old shotgun house had been surpassed by its reputation. Its 60-seat dining room, known as the Gold Room, still had a quaint authenticity, but it was showing its age. And, though folks might have been too polite to say it, the neighborhood surrounding Dooky Chase wasn’t what it had been in the 1950s.

“A decision was made to become a major restaurant and stay in the neighborhood,” recalls Kalamu ya Salaam, a writer and civil rights movement veteran. “This restaurant was across the street from a housing project. It was a gutsy call.”

By connecting two more shotgun houses to the old Dooky’s on Orleans Avenue, Leah Chase achieved her dream of owning an expanded, full-service restaurant. And she finally got the menu she wanted: shrimp Clemenceau (served with potatoes, peas, and mushrooms in garlic butter), chicken breast stuffed with oyster dressing, gumbo (which attracts the most press attention), crab soup, and, perhaps as a nod to the old days, some of the best fried chicken around. She even got her customers to like shrimp cocktail and lobster Thermidor.

There’s still a take-out section—with its own kitchen—that serves some of the best po’boys and red beans in town. (Those in the know order the shrimp or oyster sandwiches on pan-bread, regular white bread made somehow more wonderful by the thickness of the slices.) And the art on the walls of the restaurant is fast becoming as famous as the food. Leah Chase will tell you the story of her collection, painting by painting.

At 77, Mrs. Chase is still in the restaurant every day, doing most of the cooking and all of the meeting and greeting. Her staff is divided between mature workers who have been at the restaurant for a decade or more, and youngsters—grandchildren and college students. Sometimes the service doesn’t always have the snap it used to. But what is unaltered is Leah Chase, her character and commitment to this food and this community. And even though their playing days are over, those former Little Leaguers still come to this place out of gratitude, and in search of a good helping of nostalgia.

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