We all need to lighten up; no analysis of the Dickensian-sounding name ultimately corresponded to the experience waiting on the important side of the threshold. Traditional though it was, Ye Olde College Inn wasn't stodgy and only rarely hinted at crotchety (like charging 25 cents for lemons with water). Service was gee-whiz nice, and most of the food was delivered with a good-as-grandma's quality that's difficult to find consistently at many neighborhood restaurants.
Sitting in the main dining room for the first time, with its cold tile floors and hard lacquered tables, I did fight back memories of my elementary school's cafeteria. They faded quickly when, glancing down, I spotted paper placemats exclaiming the restaurant's favorite "Appetizers!": old fashioneds, martinis and hi-balls. Goodbye chocolate milk. And it wasn't chance that a sweet old fashioned scored an upset on my list of favorite local cocktails. The restaurant is brimming with details that, though they might strike hipsters as retro-chic, result in a true down-home spirit.
Take the daily side dishes, served either a la carte or alongside designated entrees: okra stewed softly with tomato and ham; simple, buttery chopped spinach; chopstick-thin sweet potato fries; ham nubs stuck like thumbtacks into a casserole of yellow squash and breadcrumbs; macaroni noodles engorged with a cheesy sea of orange cream that parted to reveal invaluable pieces of burnt top-cheese. This last dish especially is as timeless as the guayabera shirt.
Velvety red beans with a hammy undercurrent took the edge off another Monday. Four days later, half an untouchably hot fried chicken appropriately launched the weekend with just enough grease to demand an Abita. The bird's handsome, rugged coating tasted like a long-baked piecrust and lacked nothing but a sprinkle of salt. I ate this across the horseshoe bar from the restaurant's 84-year-old owner, Emile Rufin, who has lived in and around the restaurant since his parents opened it in 1933. Rufin also closed the week with a beer, in the company of corner-of-the-mouth snickerers who bore uncanny resemblances to the barflies at Cheers.
When asked for his recommendations, Rufin, who seats each lunch patron with the allegiance of a lifetime crossing guard, will tell you that all the food at Ye Olde College Inn is good. And he's almost right. Shrimp remoulade, although oddly expensive at $10.50, was a paradigm for the smooth, Thousand Island-type remoulades that drench bay-infused shrimp all over town. More inch-long shrimp fried for a seafood platter wore lightly puffed, golden jackets and came with a superb, relish-crazed tartar sauce. Which brings us to Ye Olde College Inn's oyster loaf, a commodity you've likely seen advertised in a 1950s-ish painting emblazoned on the neighboring building. The loaf was your standard po-boy on toasted bread, full up with oysters in lightly bubbled casings. Although the oysters themselves were slightly shriveled, they breathed new life under the influence of the tartar sauce, lemon squeezes and two shakes each of Tabasco. Now that was a sandwich that deserved its own mural.
Cheeseburgers were cute as bugs, hailing from the old-fashioned, pressed-flat school of beef cooking and delivered on plates smaller than a slice of toast. The irregular, hand-formed patties, glazed with melted orange cheese, poked out from under perfectly round buns and came in one temperature: done. These are burgers that meals are built around, the best reason for ordering Ye Olde College Inn's pyramidal heaps of loosely battered onion rings that shed golden cornflakes of crust. My arteries and I took this meal in with the hot-pink bubbles of a nectar cream soda -- a vanilla-almondy flavor that is not at all dead despite the unfortunate demise of K&B drugstores.
In my eatings, the tenuous symbiosis between inexpensive ingredients and flattering preparations broke down only a few times, twice in a pork chop. I tried the chops fried in a po-boy and seared alongside red beans, both times cursing evolution for dulling our incisors. The chop's bones were separated from the meat for the po-boy, also fried and laid to the side; I gnawed at the remaining gristle in bitter remembrance. Nearly unsweetened bread pudding was covered in a scary sauce the color, texture and, as far as I could taste, flavor of raw egg yolk.
Otherwise serving an ageless New Orleans neighborhood cuisine, Ye Olde College Inn is slightly younger than Mandina's on Canal Street and just 14 years older than Liuzza's on Bienville Street -- two other deep-rooted, family-owned Mid-City restaurants. Every New Orleans generation would do well to preserve traditions like these.