"This is our corner, we had to make sure no one else took it," Richard explained with a chuckle, surrounded by a gang of guys who are as much a fixture at Mandina's bar as the Maraschino cherries that bob in the house-specialty Old Fashioned cocktails.
The bar is completely new and is now in a different location within Mandina's pink Canal Street building, but Richard and company found their old roost as if by instinct. The biggest change, one member of the group offered, is that there is a little more room now for the waiters to slip behind them with their heavy trays of heavy food.
Mandina's was one of those New Orleans institutions in which major change seemed impossible. But change came all at once, courtesy of Katrina, and the result today shows that rare trick of channeling the old feel of a place but doing it better. Everything from the drywall to the light fixtures is new, and a pair of dining rooms once divided by the bar are now united as one large room. There is a better flow to the place. There is more room by the bar for the inevitable wait during lunch and dinner rushes, and the restaurant has central air conditioning for the first time. But to sit at a table and look out the neon-laced windows feels just like the old days.
The kitchen also is entirely new, but the food is unchanged and most regulars can order without looking at a menu. There's the turtle soup spiked at the table with a shot of sherry, crab claws in wine sauce, roast beef po-boys and onion rings dusted with parsley flakes. Grilled shrimp come with the garlic-parsley-olive oil sauce known only in New Orleans as bordelaise. The fried trout amandine is served with French fries soaking in lemon butter sauce -- a big, blue collar version of the dish served downtown at Galatoire's or Arnaud's. There's daube -- that braised antique of the beef world. Stewed chicken looks like it arrived straight from a country kitchen. Little dishes of bread pudding are studded with piping hot raisins and bits of pineapple. Meals still start with butter-soaked rounds of toasted po-boy bread -- like Mandina's canaps -- and those ubiquitous onion rings that, if anything, taste better now thanks to the kitchen's spanking new fryer.
Mandina's started life as a corner grocery and bar run by Sebastian Mandina. He turned the building over to his sons, Anthony and Frank, who had been born on its second floor, and those Mandina brothers opened their own restaurant there in 1933, right at the tail end of Prohibition. In 1975, Anthony's son Tommy took the reins of the family business and still runs it today.
Over the generations, Mandina's became the standard for the New Orleans-style neighborhood restaurant -- even as the definition of that term changed from a place people patronized simply because they lived nearby to a destination for those craving a restaurant experience that tastes, looks and even sounds like home.
Things seemed bleak for Mandina's for a long time after Katrina. There are regulars at the bar now who recount stories of floating past the place in boats in the days after the flood. Just about everything on the building's first floor had to go. On a visit in November 2005, a crew of workers was busy ripping the place apart with sledgehammers and pry bars. A 10-year-old boy was with them, smiling over the breathing mask strapped to his neck as he stood on top of the ruined bar and poured flood-stained bottles of whiskey and vodka into a garbage barrel.
"Check this out," the boy shouted to a visitor. "I'm too young to drink but I'm busting up the bar!"
That was around the time the Mandina family opened a restaurant in Baton Rouge, and it opened another late last year in a Mandeville strip mall. But the owners said all along that they were committed to reopening the Mid-City restaurant, and before there was much in the way of electricity restored to their neighborhood, they hoisted a banner high up on the building facing a mostly empty Canal Street that read, "We Shall Return."
Target dates for reopening flew past in a way that will be sadly familiar to New Orleanians who have had recent experiences with taking apart and reassembling old, flood-damaged structures. But now Mandina's is on a list of rebuilt Mid-City restaurants that reads like an honor roll of New Orleans neighborhood favorites. Angelo Brocato's Ice Cream & Confectionary reopened in September and promptly resumed the 100-year-anniversary celebration the storm had cut short in 2005. Liuzza's Restaurant reopened on Bienville Street in May, and is now in its 60th year in business. Down on South Broad Street, the Crescent City Steakhouse has been cramming customers in since reopening around Christmas. Although the building was flooded, its masonry walls and tile floor did not have to be gutted or replaced and the classic steakhouse looks much like it must have when it first opened in 1934. As of press time, the 1950s-vintage Restaurant Venezia was slated to open.
The scene at Mandina's on reopening night was one of jubilation because the return of each of the city's distinctive restaurants is another victory over Katrina. Taken together, the restoration of all these old restaurants feels like early spring in Mid-City.