In the realm of reality TV and all those best-of contests, every dish is a competition and every eatery is in some cross-town rivalry with another serving similar food.
But the true character of a restaurant community based on its own living food culture is more nuanced. New Orleans gives many convincing examples of chefs and restaurant owners stepping up to support each other, even if they’re technically competitors. An event coming up next weekend, on June 18, will bring more proof, and this time it will be powered by po-boys.
Just before Christmas last year, one of the city’s old-school po-boy shops was knocked out of business in a most literal way. A little after 1 a.m., a traffic collision at the corner of Magazine and Valmont streets sent a pickup truck careening through the front door of Guy’s Po-boys.
Above: A shot from the damage suffered at Guy's Po-boys after a truck careened through the front in December.
By late April, Guy’s owner Marvin Matherne was able to reopen with the same menu and the same basic layout, now with some new paint and fixtures. It looked like all was well.
Two miles down Magazine Street, however, Jeff Carreras knew better. He’s the proprietor of Tracy’s Original Irish Channel Bar, and before that he ran Parasol’s for many years.
“Marvin was shut down for Christmas, for Sugar Bowl, for Mardi Gras, that’s the good time here, he lost out on a lot,” said Carreras. “I think about that happening to anybody else, that could put you out of business. We don’t want to see that happen.”
Carreras started recruited a small circle of other restaurant people known for their po-boys and together they began planning their own fundraiser for Guy’s Po-boys, to be held right outside Guy’s.
Pay one price ($15) and you can try short sample-sized portions of different po-boys from the collected group. That includes Tracy’s, Parkway Bakery & Tavern, Parasol’s Bar & Restaurant, Ye Olde College Inn, Killer Poboys and Guy’s. As you might expect from an event planned by a bunch of po-boy purveyors, this one is low-key.
“The idea is Marvin can just run his own business inside as usual, and we’ll do our own thing outside for him,” said Carreras. “We just want to put a little money in his pocket.”
“It’s a business, but it’s po-boys”
Matherne had insurance to cover repairs, but that job took months while Guy’s remained closed. He was initially reluctant to take up the fundraiser offer when Carreras proposed it. But he relented, and now that it’s happening Matherne hopes the organized effort could become an annual event for other beneficiaries.
“This year it’ll be me, and I do need this,” he said. “Sometimes you’ve got to get your pride out of the way and let common sense come through.”
What’s most surprising to Matherne is that he knew none of these restaurant owners personally before they started planning the event.
But Justin Kennedy, manager of Parkway Bakery, said the group felt drawn to do it through a kinship in po-boys, and through a shared stewardship of the piece of New Orleans food culture under their watch.
“It’s a business, but it’s po-boys, that’s New Orleans,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy visited Guy’s a few years back when he was on a self-guided po-boy tour, checking out what other shops were doing. Guy’s po-boy hit the spot, he recalled, but what made the biggest impression was the way the shop felt.
“It was this throwback, just Marvin and a couple people running the place, doing it all,” he said. “That’s how Parkway was back in the beginning. We’ve gotten a lot bigger, and we’re blessed for that. But that little shop is just the classic for how we do it in New Orleans.”
Kennedy recognized that those same characteristics made it vulnerable after its bout of misfortune.
“Po-boy shops aren’t corporate, they’re not in big restaurant groups,” he said. “They don’t really have a team to back them up even when somebody calls in sick, never mind something like this. They’re just the classic mom and pop. So if a bunch of us can help him out, that’s what we want to do.”
Matherne said that Guy’s has been a po-boy shop since the 1950s, and it was originally run by namesake Guy Barcia Sr. Matherne bought the business in 1992 with the aim of keeping it like he found it. For a long time, the biggest changes at Guy’s occured when some regular’s customized po-boy combo made the leap the regular menu (see “the bomb” with catfish, shrimp and cheese, concocted years ago by members of the band Galactic).
Guy’s has always been a minimalist affair, and it remains so after this spring’s repairs. The entire kitchen is open to view from the counter. Barq’s is the bestselling beverage. Most seating is communal by default, as a lunchtime crowd mixing contractors and students from the art academy across the street share a pair of long tables.
Matherne is still amazed by the effort his peers across the po-boy spectrum are putting forth on his account, but he understands their perspective.
“People think we hate each other because they do po-boys and I do po-boys, and if you’ve got your favorite then the other guy must be wrong, but that’s not how we look at it,” Matherne said. “I’ve never met these guys before, but once we sat down we had so much to talk about. We inhabit the same world.”
Po-boys for Guy’s Po-Boys
- When: June 18, noon-4 p.m.
- Where: Guy’s Po-Boys, 5259 Magazine St.
- Tickets are $15 at the event. For more details, click here.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.