Ensconced beneath the shadow of the historic Jim Bowie Live Oak, near where the famed American adventurer once lived, sits a little diner that has been a downtown Opelousas institution for over nine decades.
Chad Fontenot, a lieutenant in the Opelousas Police Department and 59-year veteran diner at the Palace, can be found here at his usual table. He and his friends have met for breakfast every morning for over 30 years.
“I come for the good company," he said. "You can learn just about everything here while you eat. The food’s so good here and you can have everything. But the most important thing is having a charge account.”
Inside the Palace Cafe, 135 W. Landry St., the western wall is lined with red vinyl booths that squeak and sigh as you sit. The opposite side has matching swivel stools at a classic diner counter. Between them are crimson-stained oak chairs and tables like a forest of stunted redwoods atop the caramel linoleum tile floor.
The room is lit by sunlight rushing through the windows and doors to the west and north. Clicking utensils and boisterous conversations usually fill the air, but everyone is greeted by the smells of the food.
Opelousas natives are not the only people to have enjoyed the Palace Cafe. Former Gov. Edwin Edwards, Chef Paul Prudhomme and actor/comedian Dan Aykroyd have dined at the Palace.
The famous gumbo recipe, along with numerous others, has evolved from 87 years of love and cooking prowess born from within the Palace Cafe’s kitchen.
Established in 1927 by Greek immigrant George “Papa” Doucas, the Palace Cafe still boasts a down-home atmosphere that exudes quintessential small-town charm and old-school aesthetic. In 1945, Doucas bequeathed his restaurant to his two sons, Pete and Steve, after they returned home from the European Theater in World War II.
The restaurant stayed in the Doucas family until Dec. 13, 2013, when granddaughter Tina Walker retired and sold it to Lafayette businessman Michael Munro.
“Selling this place was very bittersweet," Walker said. "I might have stayed longer if my husband hadn’t been ill. I ran this place for 23 years. My family started it. It was tough.”
Walker’s sudden sale of the restaurant gave some patrons concerns about the regime change at the Palace.
“Everyone worries about things when changes happen,” said Damon Fontenot. “Will they build upon the old or throw it out and make a new restaurant? Is this new guy coming in and destroying a restaurant or giving it new life?”
For those in Opelousas and St. Landry Parish, the answer to that question was the latter.
“We tried to keep the history of this place alive,” said manager Jennifer Schaubert “We built on what worked, kept all the employees — some of them have been here 40 years — and kept all the recipes the same. Only things we changed were adding more breakfast options and adding the lunch line.”
These additions seem to have struck a chord. The new breakfast items include sizzling skillets of scrambled eggs mixed with a multitude of melted cheese, grilled meats and vegetables.
The lunch line, with a menu that changes daily, allows customers to enjoy a buffet-style experience if they dine in or create their own plate lunches to go. It’s like a food pyramid built for a balanced Southern meal: red beans and rice, broccoli swimming in cheese or banana pudding.
The only daily mainstay? The popular fried chicken.
The bird is seasoned and has just enough grease to make the skin almost dissolve on the tongue yet the meat beneath remains moist and tender. And for those watching their weight, “Pete’s Famous Fried Chicken Salad” is always an option.
Dishes like these are one of the reasons some devotees have been partaking of the Palace’s provisions for almost 90 years.
The Palace Cafe is even venerated by its competition.
“My dad retired in 1980 and knew Pete. I know Tina really well,” remarked Scott Soileau, owner of Soileau’s Dinner Club, 1618 N. Main St. “We’re the last two restaurants that started that long ago. We started in 1937, 10 years after the Palace. You wouldn’t think there were many restaurants back then, but there were and we survived this long. It’s important.”
Said Lucinda Rideaux, head cook and 27-year employee: “We add new things, try them out but keep what works the same. It’s all still here — just like me.”
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