When Jacques Rodrigue and his wife, Mallory Page, go out to dinner with friends, they typically begin their meal with a burger for the table.

They cut and divide it into "burger shots" to share as an appetizer.

"Every time we'd see a burger on the menu, we'd want to get it," Page said. "But it's also like 'Am I really going to go to this restaurant and just get a burger?' So we kind of resolved that by ordering a burger as an appetizer. I highly recommend it. You don't have to eat a whole burger, and you get to taste other menu options that way."

These burger shots were the inspiration for Blue Dog Cafe's latest initiative: Wednesday Burger Night.

The weekly burger specials, which are named for the restaurant employees who created them, cost $12 each and include an order of fries or sweet potato chips. This week's lineup includes:

  • The Nick: hand-cut bacon, candied jalapeno, pepper jack cheese, lettuce, red onions and roasted red pepper aioli
  • The Mike: blue cheese, blueberry reduction, spring lettuce mix, onions and basil aioli
  • The Coy: cheddar cheese, jalapeno fried onion strings with a honey reduction
  • The Mitchell: three-pepper candied bacon, pepper jack cheese, fried onion strings, barbecue sauce, butter lettuce and bread-and-butter pickles

Wednesday Burger Night is the latest in a series of rebranding strategies happening at the restaurant George Rodrigue opened 20 years ago.

"Dad loved burgers too," Rodrigue said of the famed Blue Dog artist from New Iberia, who his son said used to sneak burgers into his gallery "long after dinner time."

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Jacques Rodrigue talks about running a restaurant on Sunday, Sept. 1, 2019, at the Blue Dog Cafe in Lafayette.

Blue Dog Cafe underwent bankruptcy last year as George Rodrigue's sons gained ownership of the restaurant alongside Steve Santillo, who helped the artist open the restaurant in the summer of 1999.

"With Blue Dog Cafe, we are still first and foremost paying homage to George Rodrigue, who was an amazingly generous, kind and down-to-earth person in addition to world-renown artist," Santillo said. "And we try to honor his memory every day with the way we serve people and the quality of food we put out."

Blue Dog Cafe quickly became a favorite among locals and tourists after opening in 1999. 

The restaurant grew even more popular after Santillo introduced a Sunday brunch buffet with live music and bottomless mimosas in 2003.

Blue Dog Cafe continued to thrive even after George Rodrigue died in 2013.

"For the first 15 years, our sales basically increased year-over-year," Santillo said. "Then, in 2015, the local economy went into recession, and at that point, they had about four dozen new restaurants opening in the Ambassador Caffery-Kaliste Saloom corridor. So all of a sudden, there's 50 new places to eat in town, and people were spending less money because jobs were going away."

Blue Dog Cafe struggled to stay afloat.

Its sister Lafayette restaurant, Jolie's Louisiana Bistro, closed in February of 2016. A second location of Blue Dog Cafe in Lake Charles closed earlier this year.

Santillo and the family were determined to keep the original Blue Dog Cafe open, even if it meant seeking protection under bankruptcy laws and having to implement some major changes.

"The restaurant was going to close," Jacques Rodrigue said. "This was a place that Dad loved. I mean, he started it as a place to hang out with his friends and to celebrate Cajun culture. And so we felt that this restaurant needed to continue to be a cultural hub for our state."

Blue Dog Cafe hired award-winning local chef Ryan Trahan last year to do a complete overhaul of the restaurant's menu. Only a few staples — corn and crab bisque, seafood wontons, crawfish enchiladas and a chicken pasta dish called the Louisiana Purchase — made it to the new menu.

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The braised short rib hash is sampled on Sunday, Sept. 1, 2019, at the Blue Dog Cafe in Lafayette.

In January, the restaurant closed for a few weeks so the kitchen could be renovated. Soon after reopening, Blue Dog Cafe replaced the popular brunch buffet with an a-la-carte menu.

"I think there's a misconception that we're expensive now, and we're not," Santillo said. "We brought out a menu after Ryan came on that was higher end, and people came in and said 'Wow, it's more like fine dining.' And it was delicious, but it was too far out of the wheelhouse of what we wanted to do as a Cajun restaurant."

Trahan left the restaurant in June, and his position as executive chef will not be filled.

Instead, Blue Dog Cafe's General Manager Mitchell Pellerin and Kitchen Manager Nick Broussard are leading the day-to-day operations.

"We're taking more of a team approach to the kitchen," Jacques Rodrigue said. "We've done almost 2,000 guest surveys in the last few months, and the feedback we got was 'The menu is excellent.' Almost 100 percent of the people would recommend the menu and service to their friends. We've got a good foundation to build upon.

"Our facility has never been better. Our guest experience has never been better. Our food quality and consistency has never been better. And we're really proud of the team we've created over the last couple of years."

The staff continues to use many of the recipes Trahan developed for the restaurant, but some things have changed since his departure.

Blue Dog Cafe's classic menu items, such as the corn and crab bisque, that changed under Trahan's leadership have returned to their familiar forms. New menu items, such as those featured during Wednesday Burger Night, reflect the personalities of the restaurant's new staff.

"We're still figuring out what Blue Dog Cafe 2.0 looks like," Jacques Rodrigue said. "It's still a work in progress. This is Dad's hometown area, and we really want to make sure we have the strongest showing possible here."

Learn more about Blue Dog Cafe's Wednesday Burger Night and the new menus at bluedogcafe.com. Learn more about how to get a free order of beignets from the restaurant through Eat Lafayette, the summer dining campaign that promotes locally owned restaurants, at lafayettetravel.com/eatlafayette/deals.

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Email Megan Wyatt at mwyatt@theadvocate.com.