For generations, a string of modest, thoroughly old-fashioned lunch spots have served CBD diners. The restaurants exude the nostalgic feel of vintage diners — with the dependable touchstones of casual New Orleans cooking, from red beans on Mondays to fried seafood on Fridays. They're everyday places that uphold local traditions more out of rhythm than reverence, but for some they're as much a part of New Orleans business life as conference calls, coffee breaks and rush hour, and they supply a concentrated reminder of the peculiarity of our city.
One of the great examples of these restaurants recently closed its doors after more than 40 years, a consequence of rapid changes sweeping the CBD. Though its owner pledges to return, at the very least this means one piece of local history has entered a prolonged hibernation.
Gregory & Pete's Restaurant (515 Baronne St.) served speedy breakfasts, decent po-boys and bargain plate lunches in a setting so richly detailed that the entire thing could have been carted off to the Smithsonian. It all represented New Orleans lunch culture before fast food and national chains took root: the mechanical cash register cranked loudly with each sale, ketchup and Tabasco bottles sat on Formica table tops, plastic divider plates kept vegetables separate from the baked chicken or shrimp stew, a cheerful sign reminded the lunch crowd "we sell ice cold beer," there was rapid-fire table service and overheard hollering from the galley kitchen, and the diverse clientele sported hardhats, corporate ID badges and neckties. It's a culture that still persists at low-key nooks like P&G Restaurant & Bar (345 Baronne St., 525-9678) and Leni's Cafe (741 Baronne St., 523-0069), which serves traditional New Orleans food with a Greek accent, much the way Gregory & Pete's did.
The interior of Gregory & Pete's was painted a pale shade of spearmint, which owner Pete Michailakis chose to remind him of the Aegean Sea. Michailakis immigrated to New Orleans in 1963, washed dishes for a few years, and bought his restaurant, then called Gregory's, from founder Gregory Moore in 1967. He added his name to the business and his wife Pat and brother Petros eventually joined the operation. Pete recalls that when he started out, a plate of red beans cost 20 cents, and coffee was a nickel. The CBD changed dramatically as skyscrapers rose and parking lots proliferated. When the oil bust of the 1980s hit, offices downsized and hotels multiplied. Some tenets of downtown lunch businesses changed along the way, too. By the early 1990s, Michailakis added delivery service because customers increasingly told him they no longer had time to leave the office for lunch.
Gregory & Pete's was in a cluster of contiguous townhouses local developer Brian Gibbs is overhauling. The upper floors of these buildings have long been empty, and Gibbs plans to turn them into a dozen apartments, part of a wave of residential redevelopment underway in the CBD. Michailakis says he intends to reopen his restaurant in a ground-floor retail space in the development once construction wraps up in November. Gibbs confirms that's the plan, but notes no contract has formalized it.
While no one can guess precisely when Gregory & Pete's might reopen, it's a safe bet that regulars will know precisely what's on the menu whichever day they return.