Dooky Chase’s Restaurant is acclaimed for its Creole flavor, it is beloved by locals and visitors and it is revered as a landmark for contributions made first to the city’s black community and then to New Orleans as a whole.
But you wouldn’t necessarily know any of that talking with Leah Chase. She appraises her family’s restaurant with a critical eye, as if it were in start-up mode and still trying to make its name.
This comes from a lifetime of keeping high standards, for herself and others. As she approaches her 93rd birthday and her restaurant nears a major milestone, she’s not letting any of it slip.
“My family thinks I’m the roughest person in the world,” Chase said in her restaurant kitchen, amid the sounds of a lunch rush and the aromas of chopped onions and fried chicken.
In fact, for the Chase family, and the many admirers of their essential New Orleans restaurant, now is the time for much more affectionate assessments, and for celebrations and commemorations.
The dinner is a benefit for the Edgar “Dooky” Jr. and Leah Chase Family Foundation, the charitable organization the family formed in 2012 to support local programs in the arts, education and social justice. It’s the first in a series of events the family plans to host as the anniversary year unfolds.
“We would like to see our grandparents’ legacy live on,” said Kimberly Reese, who, like her mother Stella Chase Reese and other relatives, helps run the restaurant. “It’s incredible what they’ve done. These are people with high school educations who built a major business with basically just a gut feeling for how to do things.”
What Leah Chase and her husband Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr. did was transform a neighborhood eatery into one of the most storied and admired restaurants in New Orleans, one where the notion of service transcends the meal.
Setting the table for change
Dooky Chase’s Restaurant was first opened in 1941 by the late Emily Tenette Chase and Edgar “Dooky” Chase Sr. It was a tavern, built in a double shotgun at the corner of Orleans Avenue and North Miro Street and bankrolled by a $600 loan from a local brewery.
Five years after it opened, Leah Chase married into the family. Born in Madisonville on Twelfth Night in 1923, Leah Chase (then Leah Lange) had moved to New Orleans as a teenager to attend school. During World War II, with so many men in military service, she was able to get restaurant jobs previously unavailable to black women.
As she took on more responsibility at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, she drew on that experience and began changing the neighborhood joint into a destination restaurant, a special place for important dinners, first dates and social gatherings in the black community.
“African-Americans didn’t have restaurants like that to go to when I came here,” said Chase. “I said we’ve got to change things. Growing up, mother always kept nice things for company. Nice glasses, nice things. That’s how we look at it here. Everybody who comes through that front door is my company. People deserve that.”
Beyond its local regulars, the restaurant gained a following among black luminaries in the arts, sports and politics who visited New Orleans, and Leah Chase befriended many of them. Ray Charles’ lyrics for his 1961 hit “Early in the Morning” even includes a reference to eating at Dooky Chase’s.
By the 1950s, with the civil rights movement gaining ground in New Orleans, the restaurant also became a meeting place for activists and civic leaders, both black and white. While this defied segregation laws, the police didn’t intervene here.
Groups packed into the second floor dining room for planning sessions, while restaurant staff shuttled food up the narrow staircase.
Chase believes that convening around a table and sharing food set the stage for greater cooperation and sense of purpose.
“They’d go out in the streets, they would go to jail, they did what they had to do, but first they ate with us,” she said. “I’ve had groups here that I don’t agree with, but I still invited them in as long as they followed my rules. You can still talk to people even if you disagree with them and you can listen to them. When you spend time with each other maybe you see something different.”
A legacy defined by service
From its roots as a barrrom, Dooky Chase’s Restaurant gradually became more elegant.
Even as the neighborhood around it deteriorated, the Chase family conducted a major expansion and renovation in the 1980s that added today’s distinctive brick façade. Over the years, the dining room walls became a gallery of contemporary African-American art.
Though the restaurant was badly damaged by flooding after Hurricane Katrina, that art collection survived and was reinstalled when the restaurant reopened in 2007.
Today, Dooky Chase’s Restaurant feels vibrant. Social clubs and business groups meet for lunch in private rooms, while tourists sometimes arrive on rented bicycles. The buffet, a fixture at lunch, is filled with fried chicken and red beans and a changing roster of dishes drawn from the archives of Creole cooking, like shrimp Clemenceau or hammy lima beans.
Just about everyone starts with Creole gumbo. Regulars waiting at the hostess station explain the lay of the land to newcomers, waitresses crisscross the room with cups of peach cobbler for dessert, and everyone perks up when Leah Chase herself leaves the kitchen to make a circuit of the tables, shaking hands, sharing stories and dispensing advice.
She enjoys meeting new people and relishes the chance to reconnect with old friends. She knows people look up to her, and it’s the source of great pride.
“It makes me feel good, it makes me feel like I have accomplished something, like I have performed service to someone else,” she explained. “When people come back and tell me they remember something I told them, that makes me so happy. I stuck with them in some way.”
Limited hours, limitless will
The restaurant’s schedule since Katrina has been limited, with lunch served Tuesday through Friday and dinner on Friday only. The menu is limited too, compared with the old days. This is a source of endless irritation for the matriarch, who has highly specific ideas about what the family restaurant needs today.
“I want to do an apple and sausage stuffed pork chop with a little sauce on the side, roasted duck breast with a cane syrup or satsuma glaze, that’s dinner stuff,” she said.
She wants the take-out window back in business for walk-up sandwiches and snacks, and she wants to see the restaurant’s bar developed as a social hub again. This would make the restaurant more accessible to more people, she said, and would hark back to the roots of the family business.
The limited hours, however, reflect a more complex family dynamic. Leah Chase’s children and grandchildren know that whenever the restaurant is open she will be there. From the shopping to the chopping, she still maintains an active role in running the business. She won’t leave until closing time.
In a way, the limited hours can be seen as part of the family’s effort to protect Chase from her own work ethic.
Mention the possibility of retirement and Chase isn’t the only one rolling her eyes. Her staff and her family know only too well how strenuously she opposes that idea.
“Father told me what you’re supposed to do is work until you die,” she said. “When you stop working, what are you going to do? Nothing? That’s when you die.”
And so it goes for her own birthday this week. While Leah Chase is the guest of honor at today’s special dinner, she will be working the event as well. She insists on it.
“On her birthday, she likes to have dinner, but she wants to be the one to cook it,” said her granddaughter Kimberly Reese.