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Forces of Habit 

Regulars reunite as severely flooded restaurants return to business.

Virtually everything in Betsy's Pancake House is new since the storm, except the people. The dining room and kitchen of the Mid-City breakfast spot are all new, as are the tables and utensils and coffee mugs. But the same women are taking orders from the same off-duty cops and utility workers and retirees who turn up when the diner opens at 5:30 a.m. each morning.

"How you want your eggs?," a waitress asks one of a ceaseless flow of regulars who were greeted with hugs the morning Betsy's reopened on March 29.

"I want them looking at me," the customer says.

"OK, so over easy," she says.

"No, no," says another waitress overhearing the exchange. "'Looking at me' means sunny-side up."

"Yeah, but when he says it he means over easy," the first waitress says. "Good thing I'm here. I know what he wants better than he does."

Good thing, indeed. To watch some of the patrons interacting with their waitresses at Betsy's, it seems like they haven't been able to find a decent breakfast since Hurricane Katrina hit. One man is even chastised by the cashier for his trimmed-down waistline.

"You got no excuses for losing any more weight -- we're back now," the cashier says, ringing up another $4 house special of bacon, pancakes with butter scoops, eggs coated with butter and grits gilded with still more butter.

Betsy's had plenty to contend with itself during the months it was shuttered. Its ground-level building was inundated with 62 inches of water after the levees failed.

"And that's a lot, I'm only 61-and-a-half inches tall myself," says owner Betsy McDaniel, who makes every half inch of her stature count as she works her bustling dining room. Though she runs the place, she also buses tables, takes orders, brews coffee and harangues the kitchen through the service window. She can't seem to finish a task these days, however, without stopping to receive a hug from a returning regular.

"We opened this place in 1989, but I've been in the business here for 40 years, so you really get to know people," says McDaniel. "And when you can't see them for seven months, you miss them like family."

Restaurant reopenings have come in tides in the months since Katrina. First there were the pioneers who managed to open in September, dishing up whatever they could before the city could even provide potable water. Many more came back during the fall in areas that did not flood badly, and the new year brought another large influx of reopenings. The latest wave comes from Orleans Parish restaurants that suffered severe flood damage but are now returning to business, including some restaurants that command intensely loyal followings among local diners.

The scene at Five Happiness when it reopened March 27 resembled a movie premiere, with a security officer supervising the jammed parking lot outside, hungry patrons clustered around the front door hoping to snag a table, and others inside running five deep around the small bar. The popular Chinese restaurant reopened in its banquet facility -- the Imperial Room -- while repairs continue on its main dining room next door.

Down South Carrollton Avenue, the Japanese restaurant Mikimoto reopened in January, recovering relatively quickly from the inundating floodwaters with a bright new renovation inside and out. Nearby, Ye Olde College Inn reopened in February by moving from its flood-swamped building to a freshly remodeled space just next door.

The neon lights flickered back on outside Pascal's Manale on March 3. Fans of the 93-year-old Creole-Italian landmark had kept their eyes peeled for just such a signal, so despite making no announcement of its reopening the restaurant was filled with smiling, backslapping regulars on its first night back in business.

"It was like a homecoming, for the customers and especially for the employees here who have been helping us with all the clean-up and rebuilding," says Pascal's Manale owner Bob DeFelice. "It's been a long road."

The Uptown restaurant took 2 feet of floodwater, and DeFelice made a thorough job of cleaning the place -- even tenting and gassing the building with a special mold treatment. Much of the interior has been rebuilt from new materials, but plenty of the old character remains. The massive wooden bar -- first installed by the Dixie Brewing Co. in 1913 in exchange for exclusivity in serving its beers --- remains intact, and the oyster bar looks the same as always. Most of the photos of famous patrons, long-gone sports heroes and gigantic oysters that covered the walls here before the storm were salvaged, though only a handful have made their return to public display.

"It took five days to take them all down," DeFelice says of the photos. "And it will probably take five months to put them all back up."

The dŽcor is also still a work in progress at Betsy's Pancake House, where just a few pictures survived the flood. Some customers are helping by bringing in their own contributions, including a jar of fava beans placed near the cash register as a totem of good fortune together with a flask of holy water and a prayer card of St. Joseph.

"St. Joseph, the carpenter," says McDaniel, inspecting the makeshift shrine on the morning she reopened her restaurant. "We needed him around here. We had to rebuild the whole place, and you know we were praying to him. I think that's the only reason I could get this place open again; St. Joseph wanted me to get off his back."

Across the room, another regular walks in and is hugged by a receiving line of waitresses before he is escorted to his favorite table by the front window where, once again, the sign flashes "open" in red neon letters.

click to enlarge The staff at Betsy's Pancake House, including waitress Joyce - Labruzzo, is so familiar with the clientele that sometimes - they have the customers' ordering habits down to a science. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • The staff at Betsy's Pancake House, including waitress Joyce Labruzzo, is so familiar with the clientele that sometimes they have the customers' ordering habits down to a science.
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