"Yes, ma'am," he says, "We're still open. No, ma'am, we haven't decided."
A group of dressy conventioneers -- nametags partially concealed under winter overcoats -- presses through the narrow doorway, letting in a blast of cold, wet wind. The party searches the tiny room for an open table or a maitre d'. They find neither. Instead, Uglesich leans over to welcome to the new arrivals. Caught between his caller and his customers, he taps his pen on his ever-present ordering pad.
"No, ma'am," he says into the phone. "We don't know how long. I might be here half a year, might be another year and a half."
Workaday sounds from the adjoining kitchen -- the clank of saute pans against burners, the burble of deep fryers -- punctuate the conversation. He motions the group to a stack of laminated single-sheet menus. "Well thank you, but it's a lot of hard work and my wheels ain't what they used to be. But we're around for now. Yes, ma'am. Monday through Friday. We're open 'til four. Thank you. G'bye."
Uglesich rests the phone in its cradle. From his perch behind the stainless steel bar, he now turns his full attention to the newcomers.
"C'mon in," he says with a serious smile. "What can I getcha today?"
In the past few years, Uglesich has fielded many similar calls from customers concerned with the future of his Central City restaurant. Despite its shabby exterior and less-than-prime location, Uglesich's eponymous eatery has become a culinary landmark for locals and a pilgrimage site for food-crazy travelers.
From its humble beginnings as a 1920s-era neighborhood bar and oyster house, Uglesich's remains a ramshackle, 10-table eatery -- but now one with a fan base that includes high-profile restaurateurs Emeril Lagasse, Susan Spicer and Frank Brigtsen. It's also one of the local establishments most recommended by the national food press. Here, visitors can continually rediscover a prototypical diamond in the rough, even if their simple lunch comes with a bottle of Belgian Trappist ale and sets them back $30 to $40 a person.
"There's always one iconic restaurant that exemplifies what New Orleans food is about, and for a lot of reasons, Uglesich's is that now," says Jonathan Gold, national restaurant reviewer for Gourmet. "There's an amazing amount of thought put into the food. It's rooted in traditional Louisiana cooking, but it's not hopelessly old fashioned. If you get off the plane and go to Uglesich's, you get the feeling there's no other place in the world you can be."
Uglesich and his wife/cooking partner, Gail, have perfected a menu that balances deep-fried New Orleans classics with their own innovations: succulent shrimp stuffed with herbed lump crabmeat. Delicate sauteed oyster "shooters" drenched in a cane syrup/sun-dried tomato vinaigrette. Peerless grilled speckled trout or the spicy/tart shrimp Uggie, tinted red with three different chiles.
In all ways, Uglesich and his restaurant are at the top of their game. But regulars and friends watch anxiously as the restaurant seems to slide toward inevitable extinction. This December, Anthony turns 65 -- traditional retirement age. He has no logical successor in the kitchen, no suitable business partner waiting in the wings, and neither of his two children are interested in carrying on the family business. Each year, fans fear he may close for his annual summer vacation and never reopen. Even under the best of circumstances, Uglesich's induction into the local "Shoulda Been There" hall of fame will likely be measured in months rather than years.
Talk of "the transition" -- a sale, a change of heart, or other miraculous event that would keep the restaurant open -- has become an annual tradition for Uggie watchers. They acknowledge that after 50 hard years in the restaurant business, the couple has earned a rest. But they also dread the day when Uglesich's shuts its doors forever.
"I've heard them talk about it over the years," says Frank Brigtsen, chef/owner of Brigtsen's Restaurant and longtime regular. "A few years back he told me it'd be another three years, maybe five on the outside. Then there was talk about finding somebody to take Gail's place. You never know. We had quite a panic last summer. When it looked like they weren't going to open, we couldn't believe it. We thought we'd missed our chance for one last meal."
The lunch shift at Uglesich's lasts for six hours, but preparation for that single service is a round-the-clock routine.
It's 8:30 a.m., and Uglesich already has been busy for nearly four hours. He's up every weekday at five talking to his seafood suppliers, then he works in his home kitchen for a couple of hours. By the time he pulls into the restaurant's parking lot, the back of his truck is filled with a jumble of mismatched Tupperware marked with names lifted straight from the menu. A bright red oil-based sauce sloshes in a tall container marked "Uggie" next to a 2-quart plastic casserole packed with seasoned lump crabmeat. Other containers hold soups, sauces and mixes that Gail and Anthony whip up during their pre-dawn prep sessions.
"We bring some of the ingredients home so we can do our early work in the morning," he says. "You gotta get a head start."
The January cold cuts to the bone and Uglesich, dressed in a denim shirt, fleece vest and hooded sweatshirt, unlocks the back door. He picks his way past six oversized white coolers -- fresh shrimp delivered the previous evening -- and surveys the room where he's spent nearly 50 years of his working life.
Inside, Uglesich's is pretty much the same as it's always been -- a 20-by-20 box with concrete floors and a low drop ceiling. Stainless industrial refrigerators and utilitarian plastic shelving units line the walls. Cases of Barq's longnecks, bottled spring water and various beers support the 6-foot wood-paneled divider between the small dining area and the even smaller 10-by-10 kitchen. Fifteen beige-flecked Formica tables (ten for indoor dining, five more for warm-weather sidewalk seating) clutter the main floor. A stainless-steel bar runs from the front door to the kitchen with a 6-foot extension -- the famed oyster bar -- jutting off at a right angle.
The room is still dank when the seven-person crew arrives to start prep work. There's not much talk; everyone still seems to be gathering momentum for the long day ahead. John Rea, the restaurant's only waiter, gets Anthony's keys and unbolts the outside doors. Line cook Zina Cooper greets her kitchen compatriots, Cynthia Mack and Michelle Rogers. Michelle's uncles -- 30-year oyster shucker Michael Rogers and dishwasher Anthony -- arrange chairs to make room for trays, colanders and other morning prep essentials. The group sizes up the mountain of ice chests.
"I'm glad we got this shrimp yesterday, because there ain't gonna be nothin' today," Uglesich says. "We need to deal with these shrimp and bag 'em. They're mixed, so separate them out by size. John, help me unload the truck."
Like his restaurant, Uglesich's accent is classic New Orleans -- his waiter's name come out as "JAW-wuhn." The second-generation restaurateur is the son of a Croatian immigrant father and Italian/French mother from rural St. James parish. His father, Sam Uglesich, came to New Orleans from Dugi Otok, Croatia in 1924 after an unsuccessful attempt to jump ship in New York harbor three years earlier. The elder Uglesich originally founded a restaurant on South Rampart Street -- a neighborhood establishment with a straightforward seafood menu to accompany its bar business. Anthony lists the old menu: "Raw oysters. Fried shrimp, soft-shelled crab, oysters or trout. Sandwiches or plate."
In 1927, Sam moved the operation to Baronne Street in Central City, then a burgeoning neighborhood for New Orleans' flourishing Jewish merchant class. "Back then," Anthony says, motioning across the street to Brown's Velvet, "milk from the dairy was still delivered by mule."
Eleven years later, in December 1938, Anthony was born into the business that bears his family name. "I started working in the restaurant when I was about 15. Back then it was all family, my daddy ran it with my Uncle Tony and me, maybe a nephew. I'd open oysters, clean fish, work the kitchen -- whatever they told me to do. But I can tell you, when I first started working there and I found out how much work it was, I was not impressed. We'd be open from six in the morning until ten at night. That's just too much work, but people didn't know any better then."
In the early 1960s, Anthony met and eventually wed Gail Flettrich, a Marerro-born school teacher. The two started their own family, and Gail started working in the restaurant. In 1969, Sam began a five-year bout with cancer and Anthony gradually took over the business, with Gail working in the kitchen.
The Sam Uglesich era was summed up neatly in the 1973 edition of The New Orleans Underground Gourmet. Author Richard Collins listed Uglesich's under the heading "workingmen's restaurants" with the following description: "This restaurant has been in operation since 1849. Across from Brown's Velvet Dairy, it offers good freshly-shucked oysters, poor boys, and fried seafood with cold draft beer. Prices are inexpensive."
After his father passed away in 1974, Anthony inherited the restaurant and the second era of its history began. Anthony and Gail built on the joint's mostly fried menu, expanding it with more creative seafood dishes. "We saw that people didn't want so much fried food, so we started changing," Uglesich says. "We put on more grilled items with our own seasoning, our own formula.
"My daddy was Yugoslavian, and his tastes influenced a lot of how we cook -- lots of garlic, lots of olive oil, lot of oysters. We wanted to make our own barbecued shrimp recipe based on olive oil instead of butter, then we tried oysters instead of shrimp. It's been real popular."
The more diverse menu also allowed Anthony and Gail to accommodate their expanding family, which now included their two children, John and Donna. "When we first got married, I used to work in the back," says Gail. "But when we started changing the menu, I stayed at home and experimented. First with the gumbo, because we never had that. Then we added appetizers and the grilled seafood."
Many initial ideas were inspired by their favorite local chefs. Anthony says his first appetizer was based on the fried green tomatoes at Joanne Clevenger's Upperline. "But we wanted to do our own version of the sauce -- something with good flavor, but no mayonnaise."
The home kitchen soon became a development laboratory to feed ideas to their production line -- the restaurant kitchen. "When I first met him, I didn't cook much -- I was a school teacher," Gail says. "Anthony was my taster. When we would work on a dish, we're each other's tasters. I would make, he would try. He would make, I would try."
This work ritual they started in the 1970s continues today. Gail begins her day well before sunup to prepare the day's sauces, soups, gumbos and dressings. "I'm up at 4:30 doing my work in the kitchen, and by the time Anthony's up, I'm about done. Then he does his work."
Both are quick to describe themselves as "cooks" rather than "chefs," a recognition of their self-taught roots. "Gail and I are different kinds of cooks," Anthony says. "She's very precise in her measurements, but that's not the way I work. We'll help each other out in the kitchen."
Emeril Lagasse, local empire-building chef and FoodTV Network personality, has admired their collaboration for years. "Their teamwork is about 75 percent of their success," he says. "Gail is just there for Anthony, wherever he needs her. Working the front, on the side, in the back. When you get a partner like that, it's a beautiful thing."
As the restaurant's 10:30 a.m. opening approaches, the kitchen crew races to finish its pre-rush prep work. Flashing knives mince onions, quarter new potatoes and reduce bunches of fresh parsley to fine, fragrant powder. Cooper readies her station -- six industrial-grade gas burners, a steel flattop griddle and a double-basket deep fryer -- for the first orders of the day. Mack and Michelle Rogers arrange piles of sliced tomatoes, mounds of shredded lettuce and bins of lemon wedges on the top of a "lowboy" cooler. With the griddle fired up and burners heating two ancient pots filled with fresh frying oil, the morning chill is all but gone.
A few feet away in the dining area, Anthony carefully wraps shrimp in half-pieces of defatted bacon ("Something new I want to try today"). At the bar, Michael Rogers shucks well-iced oysters. With a blunt oyster knife in one hand and a heavy-gauge rubber glove on the other, he scoops up a jagged shellfish and slams it onto a curved soft metal anvil. Deftly finding the vulnerable spot near the oyster's hinge, he pries the rocky shell open, zips the knife through the strong twin adductor muscles and plops the very surprised bivalve into a waiting bowl. For now, Rogers works quietly and quickly -- when the rush starts, he'll be quick to chat up the waiting customers while performing his duties.
The practice of fresh-shucking "cooking oysters" is fairly rare in modern restaurants, since most kitchens rely on pre-shucked shellfish for fried or sauteed dishes. But old-school attention to freshness is a trademark of Uglesich's and its owner. "If the quality's not there, I'm not gonna sell it," he says. "I'd rather be honest with people. It kills your sales, but I'd rather tell people in advance.
"I love my Louisiana seafood, it's just got superior quality. The imported seafood puts a hit on the local producers and it doesn't taste as good. I got people coming in here every day trying to sell me frozen, imported seafood for cheaper, but the flavor isn't there. I tell them, 'I like Des Allemandes catfish -- I don't care how cheap you can get me something else.' I like what I like."
"That's a big lesson I learned from Anthony," says Frank Brigtsen, "that you need to nurture relationships with your suppliers. Anthony doesn't nickel and dime his purveyors and builds a good relationship from both sides. Not all fish are the same, so if you want the best, you have to earn it."
Mary Schneider of P&J Oysters is one of the suppliers who has learned first hand about Uglesich's standards. "We started working with Mr. Anthony about 11 years ago," she says. "Just before his long-time provider (David Cvintanovich) retired, he came into our shop and explained that he'd like us to take over Mr. Anthony's account. Since then, we've supplied all his product. But it hasn't been easy.
"Every morning, I'll personally taste the different lots of oysters for the day," Schneider says. "About five o'clock, he'll call me before he's had his coffee and ask me what they taste like. He's looking for size, flavor and shell size. We know which ones he wants, and he's willing to pay a premium for the best product. He'll pay extra for the big shells, because he knows his clientele and that's how he likes to present them. And he always gets what he wants. He's one of my favorite people, but he's picky, picky, picky."
The day's first customers -- lone tourists toting guidebooks and bracing against the cold -- arrive dutifully at 10:30 a.m. sharp, the official opening time. Each wears blue jeans, a black leather jacket and a puzzled expression.
A few straggling deliveries -- a huge brown bag filled with Leidenheimer po-boy loaves, several cases of wine -- come through the door as the customers get their instructions from Uglesich. "Take a menu and find a table," he says with a somewhat distracted smile. "We'll be over to help you in a second."
He shakes his head slowly. "The forecast says we got cold drizzle all day. The weather's gonna be bad for the fishermen and it's gonna be bad for business today."
After signing for the wine and bread, Uglesich grabs his pad and edges past Rogers, still shucking at the oyster bar. He moves a little hesitantly, with a limp that comes from 50 years of walking on the room's unforgiving concrete floors. "I stay on my feet too much, and it's given me bad knee problems," he says. "The only two days of work I missed in 45 years were because of my knees. I had them scoped on Friday and I was back on the Monday. But they've been getting worse lately."
Add to that a history of arthritis and bone spurs in his feet, and you've got a snapshot of the classic restaurant lifer. His ailments match those of his longtime colleagues such as Susan Spicer, the culinary mind behind Bayona, Herbsaint and Cobalt. "When I go in, we talk about travel, new ingredients and flavors, but just as often swap stories about the restaurant business and compare our battle scars," she says. "Bad knees, bad feet. We got it all."
The first customers sit at separate tables, and Uglesich limps over to lead them one-by-one through the menu's two dozen appetizers and 30 entries. He poses a series of questions that borders on interrogation. "What are you in the mood for today?" is a common opener, along with "You like spicy food?" and "Tell me what seafood you like and whether you want a sandwich or a plate." Whether delivered tableside or from behind the counter, Uglesich's voice carries a distinctly serious tone -- as if there's a single right answer that the customer could give in a lunch order.
Within minutes, plates emerge from the kitchen and the affable Rea carts them over to the waiting diners. One contains a crispy, deep-fried patty made of tender shrimp and salty country sausage drizzled with a creamy Creole mustard sauce. Spicy but well-balanced, it's one of Uglesich's many successful (and often unlikely) ingredient combinations that become house standards. "I'm not scared of blending things together," he says. "Take the crawfish ball appetizer -- fried crawfish balls with a spicy Thai dipping sauce and a little rice on the side. It's a mix of Creole and Asian. Some people don't like it, other people love it."
On the plate, that appetizer is a study in flavor and texture. Plump Louisiana crawfish tails in a sweetish egg and breadcrumb binder are deep-fried to a crispy consistency, then served with a tangy thin-bodied mixture flavored with fish sauce, rice vinegar and a time-delayed chili/garlic afterburn.
By 11:30 a.m., the restaurant is standing room only. Fifteen minutes later, there's hardly any standing room left. The tables are packed, most for the second time, and new groups jostle to get in from the cold.
Gail arrived a half hour earlier, dressed in her trademark uniform -- an oversized denim shirt embroidered with Warner Brothers cartoon characters. With the crowds swirling around the main counter, she takes orders, works the cash register, and keeps track of new arrivals. Every so often, she states the house rules with an authoritative tone left over from her classroom teaching days ("Place your order up front first, please!").
Group after group approaches Anthony, hoping to gain a little insight into the dense, often confusing menu. One customer points to a handwritten sign on the wall: FRESH TROUT -- MARKET PRICE. "How are the trout?" he asks. "Naaaaahhh, I don't have any," Anthony tells him. "I can't get fresh and I won't buy frozen." He laughs and shakes his head. "Tell you what, I'll get you a nice catfish from Des Allemandes, Louisiana. You won't know the difference. When I tell you the catfish is good, the catfish is good. You should listen to me."
Behind the kitchen's half wall, the action ratchets up to full speed and stays there. The cooks work elbow-to-elbow, staring up at the active tickets as their hands assemble and double-check outgoing orders. The full griddle hisses in the background as Cooper tends five orders of grilled catfish, two orders of shrimp in the fry pots, and four saute pans. Anthony Rogers works all three sections of the stainless steel sink, keeping the shelves filled with clean dishes and utensils. It's a lot of action for a 10-foot square, but it's executed plate after plate, check after check, without missing a beat.
Judging from the conversations, today's crowd is mostly made up of tourists. Two couples from Memphis squeal over a chance meeting 400 miles from home. A Bay Area business traveler, menu and cell phone in hand, reads his options to his San Francisco connection. Gail mixes a round of super-strength cocktails from the cluttered tabletop bar. A couple of petite Uptown ladies stop in for an early lunch without bothering to consult the menu: "Mama will have a Sam's Favorite, and I'll just have the half-and-half po-boy."
"It used to be my customers were 80 percent local and 20 percent tourists," Uglesich says. "Now it's the other way around."
Paul Varisco, one of Uglesich's most consistent customers, has watched these changes for more than 30 years. "I started coming in here about 1972, and the business was about 90 percent local. When the menu started expanding, they got a write-up in USA Today about the time the Republican Convention came to town in 1988. The reputation built from there. People would come into town and ask me for a real local place, and I'd bring them here. Ahmet Ertegun, the CEO of Atlantic Records, became a big fan and always brought people in. Then the chefs -- Frank, Susan, Emeril -- came in and brought their friends."
The early connection to Lagasse resulted in several television appearances for Uglesich on the chef's popular TV shows Essence of Emeril and Emeril Live. Whenever Lagasse was asked about his favorite underground eating establishments, Uglesich's would pop to the top of the list. "Emeril's been real good to me," Uglesich acknowledges. "He's brought a lot of people in here in the early days, and he always treats me well at his restaurants."
Since then, magazines from Travel and Leisure to Cigar Aficionado to Bon Appetit and Gourmet have raved about New Orleans' unlikely "fine dining dive." Television producers looking for the seamy-yet-safe underbelly of local cuisine gravitate toward the place. Even Martha Stewart shot a segment in which Gail and Anthony demonstrated a recipe for their famous "oyster shooters."
"For people outside New Orleans, it's like Lourdes," says Gourmet's Gold. "If you're a tourist, you have certain expectations about New Orleans and it fills them all -- an exceptional, funky restaurant in a bad neighborhood run by a charming curmudgeon. There's a sense of civility among the decay. People always immediately understand what the big deal is."
Uglesich's reputation -- and the attendant out-of-town crowds -- grows larger every year. During peak seasons such as Jazz Fest and Mardi Gras, the line can start forming at the start of the early morning prep shift. Over time, the national following has pretty much replaced the local lunch traffic. Both lines and wait times are unpredictable, making Uglesich's a perfect illustration of Yogi Berra's classic line: "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."
Uglesich recognizes the regional differences of his customers. "Locals are more likely to order a simple lunch like a po-boy. But tourists tend to be a lot more adventurous. They'll come down, wait for an hour and then eat for two more."
The out-of-towners have also shaped Uglesich's offerings over the years. When asked about his unusually deep beverage list of 21 different wines and 18 beer brands, he replies, "Customers started coming in and asking for different wines -- people from California suggested their favorites, so we started carrying them. We listen to our customers."
The tables are still packed at 2:30 p.m. and the line has gone from three deep at the bar to a few couples clutching tiny yellow post-it notes and waiting for Gail to call their number. Anthony has a little more time to chat with his customers. "You have a nice weekend. Need a cab? The streetcar's on St. Charles, two short blocks down Erato. You're gonna need the exercise after lunch," he laughs. "Come back and see us."
Rogers alternates between his shucking duties and backing up a busy Rea. In between calls for "dozen raw for the gentleman," he quickly buses and cleans vacant tables, delivers hot plates from the kitchen to their assigned tables, and poses for pictures with customers.
It hasn't been a good day for the raw bar, partially because Uglesich does his best to discourage would-be raw oyster patrons. "Nah, Get 'em from the kitchen, but not from the bar," he tells them with disappointment, bemoaning the effects of Hurricanes Isidore and Lili on coastal oyster beds. "This is the weakest December I can remember."
As the front bar clears a bit, Uglesich takes a breather to talk about the business end of things. "I'm glad I stayed small," he says. "If you get big, you can't always get your ingredients like you want them. I remember talking to my daddy about this. If I get big, I gotta do what other people do -- use imported or farm-raised products, and those just don't have the flavors I like."
"We had a chance to move close to the convention center in the 1980s, but my kids weren't interested in taking over, so we didn't do it. I've had some offers, but nobody who really sounds serious. People want to buy the business and hire somebody else to run it. And you can't do it like that."
"I've learned a lot over the years from people right here. Frank Brigtsen is always good. You know what I respect? That he stays on the premises and does his own cooking. Anne (Kearney) and Susan (Spicer), those women working in the kitchen, they put in some real hard work."
Talk turns to the impending transition. "This place is my life, it's my love," he says. "But I'm getting old. I've been having knee problems and I just can't keep going. We've got Gail's parents at home, too, and they've got to have 24-hour care. We just can't do it all. I'd like to have more time to travel, maybe put these recipes in a book."
The exact timing of Uglesich's retirement remains a guessing game even for those closest to him. "Anthony's always said that he'd work until he was 65, but I'm not really sure beyond that." Gail says. "I really like to cook and I like talkin' to people. That's what I'm really going to miss."
Friends and colleagues still hold out hope that something can breathe new life into the institution. "He first started talking about closing about ten years ago," says Spicer. "Everybody has a view in their mind of the perfect heir -- one of their sous chefs who could take the place over."
"The vacations have been getting longer -- they started out as two weeks a year, then four, and last year it was ten weeks," says Varisco. "Two years ago, there was some talk about his closing, and this year it's more serious."
"He's talked that way for years," Brigtsen echoes. "Business is either so bad it's killin' him or it's so good it's killin' him. They've got a lot going on right now with the family, so you never know."
As for life in a post-Uggie era, Spicer says, "I don't like to think about it."
It's 4:30 p.m., official closing time. One straggling table -- a returning group of event planners from Washington, D.C. -- calls for another bottle of wine as they finish up their second round of appetizers.
"You get to try a little thing I'm working on," Uglesich says as he pushes the bacon-wrapped shrimp to the center of the table. Half the plate is covered with what Uglesich called a "sweet potato cream sauce," a flash-broiled custard with a smooth, souffle-like texture. Not surprisingly, the dish -- with well-balanced sea-and-pig flavors and sweet finish -- is a hit.
The last entrees leave the kitchen. The line crew breathes a sigh of relief. Cooper emerges to talk with Gail for a few minutes, glad to take a break from the super-heated kitchen strewn with a day's worth of bread crumbs and sauce splatters. A warm afternoon light bathes the nearly empty room in a peaceful, golden glow. The hurricane fence shielding the front window casts a diamond pattern on the empty tabletops.
"Well, that's it," sighs Rea. "A quiet Friday. Just about as busy as a good Thursday. But that's not so bad." After a quick sip of water, he turns to stack the empty tables. Michelle Rogers adjusts her dew rag before shifting into cleanup mode.
Gail says her good-byes and gathers her purse, along with zip-top bags of pre-prepped ingredients for her next early-morning shift. Anthony walks her to the curb. As he returns to tally out the register, the payphone rings yet again.
"Uglesich." he says, leaning in to accommodate the short, braided cord. "Uglesich. It's pronounced YOU, GULL like a seagull, SITCH. No, ma'am, we don't serve dinner. We're closed now. Closed on weekends, too."
Then, as if to give his caller a little hope: "We'll be open on Monday, though. You gonna be in town? Good. C'mon by and see us."-->
"I've met a lot of wonderful chefs in my time, but Anthony is my hero. It's amazing to see that kind of dedication to the customers and their love of food. Anthony and Gail make it their 24/7 occupation and that's why Uglesich's is what it is.
"His fried foods are impeccable. I've seen people work a fry station and not respect it. You taste his fried soft shelled crab and it's perfect -- perfect texture, perfect oil temperature, perfect timing. He allows the quality and flavor of the seafood to come through.
"They serve the best seafood in New Orleans in a neighborhood restaurant, and his care for his food and guests is beyond parallel. Uglesich's is the epitome of the New Orleans neighborhood restaurant -- and there ain't that many of them left." -- Frank Brigtsen
"They do the classics better than anybody. But he can also come up with something that's totally surprising. They're always on this eternal quest, open to exotic flavors while staying deeply rooted in the local ingredients. And it's all moan-and-groan good.
"I think his legacy is on a level of Buster Holmes. He's legendary for his dedication and understanding that you always have to start with a quality product. The source and the product are always of pristine quality. With his oysters, he knows the different locations, where they're going to be fatter or saltier. He knows what he's doing. You can take for granted that whatever he's serving, it's gonna be good. He's got that kind of pride." -- Susan Spicer
"They developed such a personal cuisine that you really can't duplicate it. Over the years, I've seen them evolve. They'll go through times when they're doing a lot of testing and there's new things coming out of the kitchen. They're not resting on their laurels; they're trying to be great cooks.
"He's been a hero of mine for years. He's a smart man, he's a great cook, he's a smart business guy. It's unfortunate that he hasn't been able to find someone to take over for him. But that would be pretty hard for somebody to do, because it's so personal for him and Gail. And so we'll end up losing a great institution. It'll be a sad day." -- Emeril Lagasse