On any given night at Upperline, some regular in a bowtie will hold court at his table, some party will rise between courses to tour the art covering the walls and a newcomer will be blown away by the duck with ginger peach sauce.
And the hostess, JoAnn Clevenger, the personification of her colorful, essential Creole bistro, will be there connecting the dots for all of them.
It’s business as usual here as Upperline cruises through its third decade. Recently though, Clevenger herself was reminded that the personality and character that makes her restaurant tick is anything but commonplace.
On Oct. 17, the regional food culture group Southern Foodways Alliance honored Clevenger with its Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award. Clevenger is a hands-on restaurateur with no intention of slowing down, but the award (which has previously gone to the likes of Leah Chase, Ella Brennan and John Folse) has made her take a long look back.
“My son Jason and I opened Upperline in 1983 with 40 chairs and no money to make the first week’s payroll,” she said. “You get so caught up in the momentum, figuring out the next thing, learning about this new aspect. You don’t stop to look at how far you’ve really come and what you’ve accomplished. The response from people since they gave me this, that’s been the most goosebumpy thing.”
If Clevenger seems a natural to the restaurant business, she was a relatively late bloomer in the field. She grew up close to food but far from luxury as a farm girl in central Louisiana and was draw to New Orleans in the 1950s by her love of art. She would eventually open bars, had flower vending carts and ran a clothing boutique. Then she discovered an available restaurant space, the longtime neighborood joint Martin’s on Upperline Street, and she saw a new opportunity in the emerging interest in regional cuisine.
Never a chef, her palate and her desire to give guests a taste of Louisiana have always guided the kitchen. Her lifetime achievement award is something she feels she shares with her staff and her guests too.
“It’s as much about the people who work here. I come up with some ideas, but they make it happen,” Clevenger said. “It’s the people who come here too, and really make this place what it is. That’s why I don’t need a TV. I have this interactive entertainment here every night.”
The Southern Foodways Alliance commissioned a short film on their award winner, produced by 1504 Pictures and called “JoAnn Clevenger: A Girl Scout with Gumption.”
1413 Upperline St., 504-891-9822
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.