On Friday morning, Celestine "Tina" Dunbar and her family prepped the gumbo, gathered for prayers and, at long last, opened the doors to their new restaurant, Dunbar’s Creole Cuisine.
The debut marks the return of a beloved New Orleans restaurant after more than decade without a permanent home to call its own. It’s also the continuation of a long-running New Orleans food story, relocated once again to a different part of town.
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“We’ve been waiting a long time for this,” said Dunbar. “It has been a long road, but I have a lot of faith and my family and I knew people were wanting us to come back.”
Previously known as Dunbar’s Creole Cooking, the family-run eatery was a pre-Katrina fixture on Freret Street long before that Uptown corridor emerged as a booming restaurant row. It was a food destination in its own right and a cultural crossroads for people from all walks of New Orleans life who shared a taste for its down-home Creole flavors.
The new restaurant is much roomier than the homespun spot Dunbar’s fans may remember from Freret Street. It’s part of a larger brick building along the edge of Gert Town, with a dining room under high steel rafters, large-screen TVs on the walls and a counter for take-out orders.
But what always distinguished Dunbar’s wasn’t so much the setting as the hospitality and the cooking, both of which are personal points of pride for Celestine Dunbar.
She lost her Freret Street restaurant to floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina and the financial morass that followed. To keep her business going and keep the Dunbar’s name in circulation she has, through the years, run a food court stand for Uptown university students, delivered plate lunches to Chalmette refineries and set up booths at neighborhood festivals.
She has never stopped cooking, though now with a new home she’s eager to get back to hosting her customers, too.
Dunbar grew up in Lutcher, amid the mix of agriculture and heavy industry in the River Parishes. She describes her food as a mixture of urban Creole cooking and country Louisiana cooking.
"It's a little of the city, some of what we do in the country," she said.
She credits her father, the late Louis Morris, with her start in cooking. She was six years old when he first instructed her on making gumbo, initially stationing a stool by the stove so she could reach the pot. At her restaurant, gumbo has always been a signature dish.
"People think making gumbo is just putting a whole lot into a pot, but it's about the order, what you do to each ingredient, the time you take," Dunbar said.
The menu at Dunbar’s Creole Cuisine has fried seafood platters and po-boys, rib eye steaks and barbecue ribs, chicken wings and seafood pasta. Daily specials proceed at a familiar cadence – red beans or lima beans with fried chicken (Mondays), candied yams with cabbage or barbecue chicken (Tuesdays), meatloaf with smothered potatoes (Wednesday) and mustard greens with turkey necks or fried chicken (Thursdays).
At breakfast, which begins at 6 a.m., the kitchen serves liver with grits and eggs next to the pancakes and pork chop plates. Dunbar’s now has a few lighter dishes too, like grilled fish and chicken.
“People are eating healthier and we can be healthier too,” she said. “Fried chicken, there’s nothing you can do to that except fry it. But other dishes you can grill. We don’t have to add meat to all the vegetables.”
In another sign of the times though, the all-you-can-eat specials that were once a calling card of Dunbar’s are no longer on the menu. Chalk that up to higher food costs, Dunbar said.
The long road home
The new Dunbar’s opens with the matriarch's family members on staff and Frank Jones, the restaurant’s longtime chef, back in charge of the kitchen. Jones worked for Dunbar’s for more than 20 years before Katrina, beginning when he was a teenager. When he heard that Dunbar’s would reopen he moved back home from Houston to join the team.
The old Dunbar’s always had a familial, almost maternal feel, which reflected its roots. Celestine Dunbar had worked in health care for 16 years before changing course once a little cafe by her her Uptown home on Oak Street became available back in the 1980s.
“I always wanted to cook, I had a big family to help me, so I thought I'd give it a shot,” she said.
Her original eatery was the epitome of home cooking. She literally prepared dinner in her home kitchen and then ferried the provisions across the street at lunchtime. Initially it was just one dish of the day, plus po-boys and salads. She remembers vividly the first meal she served as a restaurateur.
“It was spaghetti and meatballs, with a side salad and garlic bread,” she said. “I make a mean meatball. If you threw it across the room it wouldn't come bouncing back at you. It's too tender."
When the line for lunch started to extend out the door, Dunbar knew she was on to something. She first relocated to a larger location on Oak Street and then, in 1986, moved to Freret Street.
That restaurant was flooded by the Katrina levee failures. Dunbar didn’t have flood insurance and said she was unable to get small business loans or other assistance to repair the property at 4927 Freret St., which remains vacant more than a decade later.
“I fell through the cracks,” Dunbar said. “But God sustained me.”
By 2006, she reopened a new version of Dunbar’s in an unorthodox second home inside the student center for Loyola University’s law school, serving her signature dishes from a food court-style lunch counter. That arrangement lasted until 2012, and for the past five years Dunbar has been cooking and serving her food in a number of different settings, from catered events to work site lunch delivery to local festivals, including the Tremé Creole Gumbo Festival.
The encouragement she got from old regulars she met along the way helped sustain her, too.
Dunbar has spent more than a year gradually developing the new Earhart Boulevard location. The effort has been slow going at times, though the hope for a new beginning has kept it going.
“Dunbar’s was home,” said Jones, the longtime chef. “That’s what we’re building again here.”
Dunbar’s Creole Cuisine
7834 Earhart Blvd., 504-509-6287
Breakfast (from 6 a.m.), lunch and dinner Mon.-Sat., brunch Sun. (from 10 a.m.)
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