Go Back
Print this page

2000s Archive

A New Orleans Original

Originally Published February 2000
In a city full of famous restaurants, Dooky Chase’s stands out as more than a great place to eat

If it were possible in the 1950s to see Dooky Chase’s restaurant for what it really was, everyone would have known it was just a shotgun house. A rather typical one, really. Though longer than most residences, it was about the same size as a whole lot of similar buildings around the city, where commerce was conducted in the front half and living took place in the back.

But people of my parents’ generation didn’t see Dooky’s like that in those days. How could they, when most of them originally viewed this place through Little League eyes? When the first time they ate in Dooky’s—or in any real restaurant—was when Morris Jeff, Sr., brought them there for the end-of-the-season awards banquet? The place usually seated 60 people, 65 tops. But for Little League banquets there were more than 100 freshly washed bodies in Sunday-best outfits, all mortally afraid to be on anything but their best behavior. In the minds behind every one of those hundred little faces, Dooky Chase would be remembered as a special place, large and grand.

As this grand vision matured, it would be the backdrop for classroom daydreams as boys and girls imagined that butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling of a prom date so special that it ended at Dooky Chase. The girls always ordered first. It was a custom owing less to etiquette than to economics. How else was a guy to know what he could afford to feed himself unless he had already calculated the cost of what his date ordered?

“When I was in school, that was our Waldorf-Astoria,” recalls Norman Francis, now the president of New Orleans’s Xavier University of Louisiana. “When a guy said, ‘I’ve got a really special girlfriend, and I want to impress her,’ we all knew where she was going.”

Then there was Ray. In those days, Ray Charles defined soul for anybody who had any taste at all. And Dooky Chase was without a doubt Ray’s favorite restaurant back then. He even altered the lyrics of “Early in the Morning Blues” to make the point: “I went to Dooky Chase to get me something to eat. The waitress looked at me and said, ‘Ray, you sure look beat.’”

And it wasn’t just Ray. All the big-time celebrities stopped in at Dooky’s, and all of them couldn’t have been wrong. In 1948, when Louis Armstrong was king of the Zulu parade, his float broke down at the end of the route. It didn’t matter. He was just a block or two away from Dooky Chase, and that’s where he was headed, anyway.

“No matter what time Nat King Cole came, he wanted those four-minute eggs,” Leah Chase recalls. “Lena Horne loved her fried chicken. Sarah Vaughan loved her stuffed crabs. She would eat four and ask me to make her six to take home. Thurgood Marshall always came for his gumbo.”

Dooky Chase began in 1941 as a small sandwich shop, financed by the profits its namesake earned from selling lottery tickets door-to-door. Emily Chase, the first Mrs. Edgar “Dooky” Chase in the restaurant business, was a good cook with a limited menu. Chicken, oysters, fish, or shrimp—you could take your pick, as long as you wanted it fried. But the restaurant, like its patrons, was due for some growing up. Dooky Chase, Jr., had been a bandleader, traveling around the South, playing jazz and rhythm and blues. He fell in love with a girl five years his senior. That in itself was scandalous, but perhaps not so scandalous as what his bride proposed to do to the restaurant her in-laws had built all the way up from nothing.

Leah Lange Chase, who had come from Madisonville, Louisiana, at age 18, had worked in French Quarter restaurants before meeting her husband. Her vision of what a restaurant should be came from the time she spent waiting tables and cooking, first at the Colonial and then at the Coffee Pot. Neither place was fancy, really. But compared to the eating options available in the black community, these segregation-era, white-only establishments were positively luxurious. Leah and the other two “colored” girls who cooked at the Coffee Pot talked the owner into serving daily luncheon specials along with the usual hamburgers. The first of these specials was Creole wieners and spaghetti, a simple, family-style dish that sold well at 60 cents a plate. Not long into her marriage, Leah Chase began putting Creole wieners onto the Dooky Chase menu. But some of her other culinary innovations were not as successful.

“The people did not know what a shrimp cocktail was. They thought it was something to drink,” Leah Chase recalls. “I tried to get my mother-in-law to understand how we served them in the French Quarter. She would say, ‘Why should I change? I’m making a lot of money.’ And she was. She used to sit there and cash checks on Friday evenings. Sit right there at that table near the front door with a cigar box. Maybe $5,000 or $6,000 in that cigar box.

“I remember one dish I was so fascinated with, lobster Thermidor. So I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to serve it.’ Well, that lobster Thermidor came back at me faster than it got out of here. Black folks were not into those cream sauces then. It was before integration.”

There were all kinds of things wrong with segregation, but, for a black business, that violently racist system offered one tremendous advantage. Black patrons were a captive market. But Dooky Chase also profited from its reputation as one of the few places that allowed integrated parties to gather for meals or meetings during the turbulent days of the civil rights movement. “Movement people were always welcomed there,” recalls Rudy Lombard, who would later celebrate Mrs. Chase and other black chefs in his 1978 book, Creole Feast. “It was like a haven.”

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.