“Everything’s good in the neighborhood,” said Leon Martin.
He was standing by the griddle at the Grille and showing a new colleague just how much pressure to apply to slice of pecan pie. He flipped the pie over and gave its underside a firm, quick spank with the spatula to crack its crust, then dribbled on a little liquefied butter from a kettle kept warm in the corner of the cooktop as a sizzling sound rose up from the hot surface.
“Just pop it like that,” he said, “and it’s all good in the neighborhood.”
The particular neighborhood where Martin was laying down these lessons, however, represents some new territory.
Martin learned his tricks of the trade at the Camellia Grill, the landmark diner in the Riverbend. Now he’s helping a new crew get rolling at the Grille, a spin off that opened this month in Metairie.
The original diner dates to 1946, sits under oaks and is steps from the green streetcar tracks. The Grille is in a newly-built strip mall anchored by a Trader Joe’s grocery and Jefferson Feed pet store on Veterans Boulevard.
But the new eatery starts with the same framework and many of the same flavors. But the Camellia Grill is beloved for something beyond its food. There's also the personality, largely transmitted through the waiters.
On its own, the Grille brings Metairie another casual spot for quick comfort food. Whether the feel of the famous old diner can take root here relies on the people working over its counter. That's why veteran waiters like Martin have been on hand as the Grille gets rolling.
Inside the Grille, the design evokes the original, though it’s not exactly a Camellia Grill replica. The centerpiece is an open kitchen lined by a white-topped counter with swivel stools extending around two bump-out bays, just like the original. Managers are trying to track down a vintage Mickey Mouse clock, a nod to the one that has kept time with gloved hands at the Riverbend restaurant for years.
But there’s also a much more contemporary-styled dining area of tables, with a textured wall giving a blue glow. Outside, there's a small corral of tables facing the parking lot for patio dining.
The Grille's menu runs through the mainstays from the original, like burgers, chili cheese omelets, pecan waffles and chocolate freezes. It adds a few new dishes too, like a combo plate of crab cakes and poached eggs and turkey burger finished with red onion marmalade and garlic/basil mayo.
“You have to tweak and tailor for wherever you are, the different areas,” said Hicham Khodr, the restaurateur who runs Camellia Grill and the Grille.
The different name marks an important distinction too. Khodr, best known for his Byblos restaurants, bought Camellia Grill in 2007. He brought the old diner back to life after a long post-Katrina hiatus, when some were beginning to wonder if it would ever return. In 2010, he expanded with a French Quarter location at 540 Chartres St. and had plans in the works to expand with more locations.
Use of the name Camellia Grill, however, fell into a long-running court battle with the restaurant’s former owner. The upshot is that while the original Riverbend restaurant is still called the Camellia Grill, the French Quarter expansion and this new Metairie restaurant go by the Grille.
But behind the name Camellia Grill, a big part of the historic eatery's personality resides with the people working the diner counter. In a role combining waiters, emcee and short order cook, they welcome customers, take their orders and then take a hand in preparing their meals.
Traditionally, new waiters have learned the ropes by watching, through a process closer to an informal apprenticeship than anything in a training manual. They have, through the years, had some heavy hitters to show the way.
There was the late Harry Tervalon, who started at the Camellia Grill from its first day until 1995, and the late Wildred “Bat” Batiste, who also worked here for half a century. Martin himself found a mentor close to home – his own cousin, the late Marvin “Word” Day.
Day became a legend at the diner, and his personal catchphrase - “Word” - was his nickname and his universal greeting to customers. The news of Day’s death in 2016 at age 50 brought an outpouring of response from around the area.
Martin now keeps Day’s legacy in active circulation around the restaurant, dishing out fist bumps to customers as they take their seats and sharing some of his counter-top banter. Pie is “love grub,” he'll let you know, and waiters have the magical ability to “slap the calories out of it." New waiters at the Grille are getting the same tutorial.
“What I tell everyone new who comes in here is you’ve got to have fun and be able to love what you do every day,” Martin said. “That’s our memory of Marvin, all day, every day. Word.”
2924 Veterans Blvd., Metairie, 504-304-3304
Opening hours: 7 a.m.-3 p.m. daily
In the weeks ahead, hours are slated to extend to 10 p.m. and eventually to midnight on Friday and Saturday.
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