That's not to say that other New Orleans restaurants aren't familial in tone. But when you see it up close -- when you see another company where your co-workers celebrate your triumphs and mourn your losses, where they have your back -- you are reminded of the value of the personal touch, of a true mom-and-pop operation.
Co-owner Jennifer Benz had recently finished reading last week's Gambit Weekly cover story on the waiters-turned-authors of How to Burn Down the House, a how-to for the service industry to scam customers, and had to cringe. She understood how it is in the cruel world, pondered her restaurant's set-up and declared, "When you put your faith in your employees, it comes back to you tenfold."
That's why, on a recent weekday visit, I could overhear Mike -- who came over with chef and co-owner Richard Benz from their previous employer, Upperline -- helping an elder customer select the perfect entree to help celebrate his birthday, before checking on his other customers. It's why I saw Alison the waitress help Leslie the bartender wipe down some wine glasses at the bar, clearly gossiping and laughing while Alison kept a watchful eye on her tables. And it's why Richard left the heavy cooking duties to chef de cuisine James Leeming and his line cooks so he could fill in for an absent dishwasher.
All this occurs inside Dick & Jenny's renovated, 1895 barge-board Creole cottage. Jennifer is a bit of a light-fixture freak; her rummage-sale sensibility has led to purchases of strands of lights across the expanded waiting/dining area that alternately can evoke Christmas, Halloween, Mardi Gras and plain old American kitsch. She recently bit the bullet and banned smoking in the waiting area while providing more smoker-friendly seating both in the front outside and in the alleyway that separates the restaurant from the couple's New Orleans residence and office.
But Richard Benz's cooking doesn't need much help. His reputation was solidified long ago in the kitchens of Commander's Palace, Gautreau's and ultimately Upperline before he and his wife set up shop more than five years ago. Jennifer, the front-house manager, put in her time waitressing at Upperline and Jacques-Imo's, where she picked up some invaluable customer-relations methods. How can you not, watching Jack Leonardi run around Jacques-Imo's in his Bermuda shorts, with gratis appetizers and glasses of wine. "Jack was awesome about that," Jennifer says, noting that Leonardi would also let employees try a piece of fried chicken here or an appetizer there so they wouldn't starve during a shift.
In a city where contemporary Louisiana fare is both ubiquitous and vaguely defined, Richard Benz seems intent on blurring the lines between country and comfort food and sophistication. Grilled beef tenderloin tips can pack their own simple flavors, or the appetizer can grow more complex by dragging the tips first through red-wine bacon risotto and then the blue cheese-studded demi-glace. It's up to you; you can make it as rich as you want.
The same can be said for three-peppercorn seared venison short loin, a classic country selection that, even in its finest moments of preparation, features a lightly gamey flavor. Dick & Jenny's version comes loaded down with that same risotto along with baked acorn squash, grilled asparagus and a cinnamon sour cherry reduction ready to sweeten the deal. That such entrees, which Richard rotates out every two to three months, are almost never outside the $16-$21 range is a minor miracle. Recently, Richard and Jennifer completed the new menu, which debuts Tuesday, and regulars will be happy to know the corn-fried oysters appetizer remains. While that was going on, Jennifer gathered the staff and let them know that Valentine's Day this year falls on a Monday, when the restaurant is traditionally closed. Instead of automatically opening up the restaurant for what would be an automatic gold-mine evening (two-hour waits are a given on some weekend nights), she put it to a vote. "I got voted down," she says, laughing, but sees the bigger picture. "It's a whole different world if you can get people to help you instead of being a boss. If I help them, and they help me, everyone gets involved." She chuckles again. "And then, running a restaurant can be relatively pleasant."