New Orleans History -- Lake Pontchartrain
Sunday, February 26, 2017
Streetcar: The West End That WasWhen Pope John XXIII called for the Vatican II council in the 1960s, he and the cardinals might have been thinking about the soul, theology and the church, but they sure weren’t thinking about West End. What was good for the soul wasn’t necessarily good for the heart of an area that was once lined with busy seafood restaurants serving the lake’s bounty.
Meeting in Rome, the council pondered reform and liberalization of the church, including loosening the rules a bit and reaching out to more people. It didn’t bother restaurant owners at West End that Masses would no longer be said in Latin or that altars would be reversed so that priests now faced the congregations. And all the deeper theological statements were of no immediate concern to the guys frying fish in the kitchens. But what really hurt West End was a rule change over which Catholics everywhere else rejoiced. For centuries Roman Catholics had been forbidden from eating meat on Fridays. The folks at Vatican II, however, thought the spiritual emphasis should focus more on performing good deeds than on doing penance. The rule was rescinded. That was great news for the beef industry, but there was trouble along Lake Pontchartrain.
West End used to live for Fridays. At one of its most famous places, Fitzgerald’s, a restaurant built on piers over the water, Friday-evening lines would stretch over the entire boardwalk, then down the stairs and along the sidewalk. “I bet you see them in your sleep on Friday nights,” I remember hearing one waiting customer say to the lady marshaling the crowd. She glanced at the line and nodded.
Neon signs glowed as people flocked to the other places, too: Swanson’s, Bruning’s, Poppa Rosselli’s and an open-air place with picnic tables placed beneath a simple roof called Maggie & Smitty’s.
Inside, waitresses made their way around the tables carrying platters of big old Lake Pontchartrain blue crabs boiled to a flaming red. The sounds of the restaurants included that of people pounding and cracking open the crab claws.
Fitzgerald’s, because it jutted over the lake, had the best view, so tables along the window were the most desirable. The same was true at Bruning’s, where the dining room rested over piers. A window, a sunset and a platter of Louisiana blues – now that was how penance should be suffered.
There was a New Orleans style to seafood preparation. The fried items usually came served over a bed of toast. A few leaves of lettuce topped with a slice of tomato and a dollop of mayonnaise would be on one side, fries on the other. Then there were the “stuffed dishes,” in which a mixture of crab meat, bread crumbs and seasonings added extra flavor and texture to stuffed crabs, flounder or pompano., all, of course, served over that bed of toast.
Outside, the night air would be fragrant with the piquant scent of seafood boil mixed with the briny smell of the lake. Gulls jabbered in the distance, and sailboats looked like floating pyramids riding the soft waves of the lake. That is the West End that was.
It’s not the same anymore, and it wasn’t all John XXIII’s fault. There were the usual other sinners: population shifts, new competition, changes in taste. Whatever the reasons, the restaurants began closing. Last year the building that once housed Fitzgerald’s was demolished. The year before that the back part of Bruning’s was whacked by Hurricane Georges. Only the Bruning’s name survives from the distant past, and now it operates from a different building. The only other restaurant is Jaeger’s, an over-the-water palace near where Fitzgerald’s used to be.
Gulls still circle, and those pyramids still bob in the water. The smell of the night air is more like salt water and less like crab boil. Here is a place needing to be rediscovered.
It seems a sin for sunsets to be wasted.•
April 2000 - Vol. 34 - Issue 7 - Page - #347