In New Orleans, A Menu of Options

The owners of Commander's Palace in the Garden District vow to reopen the restaurant and make it
The owners of Commander's Palace in the Garden District vow to reopen the restaurant and make it "bigger and better." (By Oscar Sosa -- Bloomberg News)
By Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 10, 2005

NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 9 These days, last call comes at 6 p.m. at Molly's at the Market, a bar in the French Quarter across the street from the French Market Place and several hundred yards from the Mississippi River.

"Last call" are two words not normally associated with this city, where the bars typically are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Each day since Hurricane Katrina burst the levees, the city has become more and more of a ghost town. All the famous restaurants and bars are boarded up and closed.

But Molly's is open for business. It closed at 7 o'clock the night Katrina started blowing in and was open again the next afternoon. "We swept everything out and had the doors open at 4:30," said owner Jim Monaghan Jr. "Hurricanes come and hurricanes go. We stayed open because the people need some place to go, especially in this neighborhood."

Once you have lived in or even visited New Orleans, it steals part of your heart. How many other cities in the country have the word "beloved" placed in front of it, as is often the case with this place? It is a place that feeds the soul as much as the stomach. It is a place that smells like Mom's kitchen, where people greet each other with a hello and then, almost always, "Where'd ya eat?"

Now all the familiar smells of gumbo and fried oysters and crawfish bisque and blackened fish are gone. And a tour of some of the city's landmark restaurants and most famous tourist attractions breaks that stolen piece of your heart.

Now you have to hold your breath when you walk past the Acme Oyster and Seafood Restaurant on Iberville Street in the French Quarter. An overloaded dumpster reeks. On the sidewalk across the street, torn garbage bags full of opened oyster shells are covered with an army of flies.

Bourbon Street is deserted except for police cars, military Humvees, and, one day recently, two New York cops walking an unfamiliar beat. "It is my first time in New Orleans," said one, who declined to give her name. "I wish I would have come before this."

Commander's Palace in the Garden District is a classic New Orleans restaurant. Founded in 1880, it is across the street from Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, a walled square block containing above-ground tombs of famous city fathers, from Samuel Jarvis Peters, the father of the city's public school system, to Brig. Gen. Harry T. Hays, a Confederate general. The street is as quiet and empty as the graveyard. The glass on Commander's Palace's front door is smashed, but it looks as though the lock held. Through second-floor windows overlooking the courtyard, the tables are visible, still covered by crisp white linens and set for service.

Members of the Brennan family, which owns Commander's Palace and a dozen other New Orleans restaurants, have set up a new base of operations at their restaurant in Houston.

"My Aunt Ella and my mom have informed me that we are going to rebuild," Brad Brennan said by phone from Las Vegas, where he runs a branch of the chain. "And because they are the matriarchs, and they're strong women, we will rebuild it. We're not offered a choice on this. They are the command, and the waters will part. And we'll make it bigger and better than before. I do believe that."

It came as no surprise that the folks at Antoine's on St. Louis Street, the place that claims it invented oysters Rockefeller, would not use just ordinary plywood to cover up the elegant French doors that line the first floor. The plywood was painted purple, yellow and green, giving it a decidedly Mardi Gras feel even in the worst of times.

Owner Rick Blount -- his family has owned the place for five generations -- had just finished inspecting the place the other day and came away happy. No water made it inside, but the winds of Katrina damaged and knocked out some bricks on the side of the building.

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