Arnold McCormick relaxes into the chair of his makeshift office in the back of Anita's Restaurant on Tulane Avenue, a sea of family photographs plastering the walls behind him, employees rushing in from time to time to grab packages of frozen pork chops and chicken breasts from a freezer beside his desk.
In the three decades since he took ownership of the no-frills diner on the corner of S. Galvez Street, McCormick, now 79, has seen Tulane Avenue go from a well-trafficked thoroughfare filled with visitors and hotels to a strip dotted with desolate lots flanked by cheap motels and plagued by prostitution and drug activity.
"Things have changed a lot," McCormick concedes. "It's not what it used to be, but everyone still knows Anita's."
A bare-bones diner in every sense of the term, Anita's is the kind of place where regulars fill the booths and the swivel chairs that hug the wraparound lunch counter. They come for the casual banter from the restaurant's manager, who shouts out orders to the team of cooks manning the open grill while she refills coffee cups and hastily scribbles on ticket slips. Here, grits are served under a blanket of melted American cheese and the restaurant's signature dish — smothered calf liver — comes swimming in sauce, cloaked in dark gravy under a mountain of stewed onions.
While a number of restaurants have come and gone, Anita's has remained a 24-hour shop you could visit anytime, whether you were leaving one of the surrounding nightclubs, hanging out after a New Orleans Saints game, or bailing out of jail. The restaurant has since curbed its hours, but McCormick says it has been able hold on to a loyal clientele while the surrounding area has seen big ups and downs, falling on hard times after a newly built interstate and the downtown hotel boom lured commuters and residents elsewhere.
The avenue, which sits in the shadow of the Orleans Parish Prison, has for years been defined by its prox- imity to the beleaguered city jail and the surrounding criminal justice entities. Trash-littered sidewalks, blighted properties and vacant lots have sat neglected and untouched for years. There was little, if any, reason to visit the strip unless a trip to the nearby courthouse deemed it absolutely necessary.
"There is still the perception that Tulane Avenue is the Tulane Avenue it used to be," says Pauline Patterson, who opened the bar Treo last year near the corner of Tulane Avenue and S. Scott Street. Patterson took over a rundown watering hole called the Cajun Pub, a dive bar known for little more than a proliferation of cheap booze and video poker. "There was an actual sign hanging in the window that said, "No hookers, No pimps — enter at your own risk," Patterson recalls.
"But we're fighting hard to change the perception," Patterson says. "We really wanted to connect Tulane Avenue with the rest of Mid-City. ... It seemed to me that (it) could easily become another Freret (Street) or Oretha Castle Haley (Boulevard)."
Patterson is one of several business owners who took a gamble on the troubled street after news spread that the opening of a million-dollar medical complex would breathe new life into the area. Now, amid the glare of neon signs advertising bail bondsmen, the slate facade of the Criminal District courthouse and a number of rundown motels charging by the hour, Tulane Avenue is slowly starting to shed its derelict image as businesses open to serve an influx of potential customers working at or visiting the medical complex.
The strip is receiving a facelift in the form of a $4.8 million streetscape project spearheaded by the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development. The project, now underway, is expected to be completed early next year and will reduce the congested thoroughfare from six to four lanes, establish a neutral ground to facilitate left-hand turns and add additional sidewalk and parking spaces. The opening of University Medical Center and the Veterans Affairs hospital next year promises a bump in commerce — and several optimistic business owners, real estate developers and residents see fresh opportunity on the old street.
All of this is great news for diners, as a crop of new restaurants and bars is helping to shape the area into a diverse dining destination. It's still an evolving district; right now, dining around Tulane is a hodgepodge of old and new, cheap and slightly more upscale, sit-down restaurants and takeout joints.
Tim Levy, president of the Greater Mid-City Business Association, calls it the "rebranding" of Tulane Avenue. "The hospitals were the catalyst for people to start investing along that corridor," Levy says. "Until the construction started on the hospital, Tulane Avenue looked a lot like it did in the '50s and '60s. Now you see people taking a chance, fixing up their properties.
"I don't know that we've seen the impact yet," Levy adds, "but my personal belief is that it's going to affect the city as a whole ... maybe as much as the Superdome has."
Avery's on Tulane was one of the early pioneers. Justin Pitard and his wife Christy opened their po- boy shop in early 2012, and Pitard recalls mornings where he would come to work early to make sure the lot outside the building wasn't littered with syringes and condom wrappers. "Everybody said we were crazy," Pitard remembers.
With time, the restaurant established a steady lunch clientele and developed a cult following for its signature buffalo shrimp po-boy showered with blue cheese. Now, a full dinner service includes a roster of Creole standbys — velvety turtle soup, shrimp-stuffed mirlitons — and a 10-ounce grilled rib-eye topped with barbecued shrimp and served with mashed potatoes laced with green onions.
Patterson opened her art gallery-cum-cocktail bar Treo in January 2014 after a massive renovation of the building. One would be hard-pressed to find similarities between the old and new facades of the narrow two-story house, which now boasts a shady outdoor courtyard and a sleek, slate gray interior with walls that serve as the canvas for a rotating cast of local artists' works.
A craft cocktail list has the feel of a well-heeled mixologist's program, including drinks with creative ingredients such as mole bitters and hawthorne tincture, and even more whimsical names: "All that's missing is the yoga pants," "How bout dem apples," etc. The snacks include cheese plates from St. James Cheese Company, chicken liver pate served with cas- sis gelee and toast points and sauteed cauliflower florets doused in a fiery blend of fish sauce, chilies and fresh mint.
Cocktails and whiskey drinks are the focus at SideBar NOLA, which opened in August on the corner of S. White Street. Here, the legal community from the surrounding criminal justice system pops in to mingle over a beer or a shot. Owner Keith Magruder throws down a short but sweet selection of classic and new drinks. The Thomas Holley, a light and refreshing rye-based drink, gets a tart burst with the addition of fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice, dry Curacao and a sage-infused simple syrup. For Scotch lovers, Magruder's classic take on the Blood and Sand punches above its weight class.
A friendly neighborhood crowd holds court at DMac's Bar & Grill, just off Tulane on the corner of S. Jefferson Davis Parkway and D'Hemecourt Street. The drinks are cheap and there's a live band playing every night. Open 24 hours, DMac's is the kind of place where it's not uncommon to see a few stragglers still hanging on at 7 a.m. on Saturday. A daily happy hour runs from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. with $2 domestic beers and $3 wells. A shot and a beer will run you $5, and there's always something cooking in the kitchen, from Angus beef burgers to towering plates of spaghetti topped with red sauce and meatballs.
Tulane Ave. Bar, the area's first gay bar, opened last year in the 3800 block, just down from Treo. While burlesque on Fridays and drag shows on Saturdays have proved popular, it's the Wednesday night screenings of American Horror Story that really pack the house. The bar's signature drink — the Captain Crush — is a heavy-handed mix of rum, pineapple juice, grenadine and lime. A weekday happy hour features $3 well drinks from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Owner Bertrand Washington says renovations on the space are underway and the bar soon will expand to include the space next door, where casual bar fare like burgers and wings will be served.
Two relative newcomers to the area, The Big Cheezy and Dis & Dem Burgers and Sliders, sit on side streets just off Tulane Avenue and offer playful, laid-back approaches to dining.
Burgers and sliders topped with fresh and funky toppings are the focus at Dis & Dem, where flags hang from the ceiling and pendant lights draped throughout the space give the restaurant a casual and comfortable pub vibe. There's also a backyard patio decorated with brightly colored wooden tables and doors.
All of the burgers are served on onion sourdough rolls that are steamed and toasted until slightly crisp. The Dis & Dem burger — a half-pound patty — gets grilled, glazed, topped with a thick sausage disc and house-cured pickles and showered with grated sharp cheddar cheese, shredded greens, red onions and thick slices of Roma tomatoes. The Hawaii 5-0 is a heart-stopping medley featuring a sausage patty, bacon, grilled pineapple, cheddar cheese and the piece de resistance: a fried egg. A breakfast menu with egg- and meat-stuffed po-boys is offered daily, while Sundays feature one of the few brunches in the area.
Nearby, on the corner of Tulane and Broad Street, Adam York and Josh Fogarty opened The Big Cheezy in early 2014, garnering such a following for their obscenely rich and unapologetic homage to the grilled cheese sandwich that they've opened two addi- tional locations.
The signature sandwich is a triple-decker and not for the lactose intolerant: sweet Hawaiian toast is filled with six different types of cheese. The Mac 'n' Cheezy comes on white bread and is stuffed with bacon- laced macaroni and cheese, a nostalgic combination of two childhood favorites.
There also are internationally inspired options on Tulane.
Hieu Doan opened the sleek Vietnamese restaurant Namese at the corner of Tulane and Carrollton avenues in late 2013. Menu items include traditional star anise-scented bowls of steaming pho (the "shaken" version comes with thin slices of meat that are seared before landing in the rich bone mar- row broth).
The food is a testament to the ways Southeast Asian cuisine is constantly modernized and reinterpreted, and there are instances where it's clear the cooks are having fun spreading their wings. For example, a take on a Cuban sandwich is served on banh mi bread and filled with braised duck, strips of bacon, cheese, pickled vegetables and a sweet hoisin aioli.
Steamed buns stuffed with tender slices of pork belly and crammed with pickled vegetables suffice for a light snack while the towering mound of "crabby rice" comes topped with rich gravy brimming with lump crabmeat and is more than enough to share.
Boswell's Jamaican Grill, a fixture in New Orleans for Jamaican food, opened on Broad Street in 1998 before closing following Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. It reopened on a quiet stretch of upper Tulane Avenue in 2008.
Tucked slightly back from the street, hugging an auto body shop, Boswell's unassuming outside appearance gives way to a brightly painted room with island decor and beach murals. All the classic Jamaican standbys are here: grilled jerk chicken, simmered callaloo, plantains and oxtail stewed in rich, coffee-colored gravy.
A daily lunch buffet includes a choice of one protein and two sides, and most hover around $12. Just passing through? A spicy beef patty and a champagne Kola — a Jamaican cream soda — make a snack to go.
If you're hankering for Honduran food, there's Telamar — tucked in a nondescript pink house on the corner of S. Dupre Street. There's little if any English spoken behind the dark bar, where cooks quietly turn out thick tortillas used to make baleadas, a popular breakfast staple stuffed with scrambled eggs, beans, cheese and avocado. The house favorite — pollo con tajadas — is a generously portioned, colorful dish of fried chicken topped with crispy plantains and a mountain of fresh shredded vegetables including cabbage, carrots and pickled onions. Sopa de mariscos is a deep red stew chock-full of fresh seafood.
In the coming months, several new restaurants will open shop. Pho Tau Bay, the Vietnamese favorite in Gretna, is opening on the corner of Tulane Avenue and S. Robertson Street. Across the street from Criminal District Court on S. White Street, local chef Hieu Truong is about to open Noodle Xpress, a Creole and Asian soul food grab-and-go joint. And the owners of Honduran restaurant Los Catrachos in Metairie are opening a second location in the former Pizzicare space at 3001 Tulane Ave.
Despite business growth and crackdowns on prostitution and drug trafficking, blighted properties and rundown buildings are still commonplace on Tulane Avenue. Levy, of the Mid-City Business Association, estimates it could take as long as two years to see benefits from the biomedical district and streetscape project.
Back at Anita's, a green and white sign declaring the institution "world famous" is still intact. It's a statement McCormick says he takes to heart.
"You've got a mixture of everything here now," McCormick says. "But we're here to stay."