It was Friday around noon, and every table at Li'l Dizzy's Cafe was full. A large group of finely dressed older women, on their way out the door, squeezed by the crowd gathered at the host's stand. They assured us that the food was worth a few minutes' delay. I was eating alone, so I volunteered to sit at the bar. Wayne Baquet, Li'l Dizzy's owner, pointed me toward the bar and told me to "grab some food." As I was finishing lunch, a man sat down beside me. He looked at his plate spilling over with trout, fried chicken and crawfish etouffee. "I've been waiting all week for this," he declared.
Buffets have a strong allure. A main course can be paired with any side; no need for awkward requests about substitutions. The only choice a serious buffet eater makes is which dish is worthy of seconds. You want a third helping of fried chicken after polishing off some bread pudding? Why not? It looks like a fresh tray of chicken just hit the steam table. Most importantly, no one ever walks away hungry from a buffet.
Li'l Dizzy's is a new restaurant, but its buffet comes with a pedigree. Customers flocked to Baquet's previous restaurant, Zachary's, on Oak Street for gumbo, fried chicken and bread pudding. Those favorites are always available at Li'l Dizzy's, along with a rotating selection of Creole soul favorites. The fried chicken, which the Baquet family also sells at Jazz Fest, has a crunchy exterior and moist, salty meat, although it can be a touch greasy. The filŽ gumbo can also be oily depending on how recently it arrived from the kitchen. One day, I scraped the bottom of the tray to fill my bowl with gumbo that had been picked clean of everything but a few lonely crab claws. Another day, a fresh pan of gumbo was packed with sausage and the broth was peppery and rich. The bread pudding, full of fruit cocktail, redolent of vanilla and with a texture as fluffy as a marshmallow, never disappoints.
Red beans and rice are always served on Monday. Others times I've found piles of tasty pork chops, cheesy baked macaroni and well-fried strips of trout. The best surprise was a tray of small sweet potato pies, still warm from the oven, which appeared after I had made my first pass through the buffet.
The downside of buffets is that it's almost impossible to keep the quality consistent. The pork chop tasted good one day, but I probably would have enjoyed it even more if it had spent 10 fewer minutes on the steam tray. A diner's best strategy for a buffet, however, is to watch the line like a cat and pounce on a dish as soon as it exits the kitchen.
Breakfast might actually be the best meal at Li'l Dizzy's. Without the rush of people, I could enjoy the warm room with its large windows looking onto Esplanade Avenue and walls that are equal parts exposed brick and dark red paint. Li'l Dizzy's breakfast, served a la carte, sticks to the classics of eggs, waffles and crumbly biscuits. After tasting the grits, which are creamy and thick without a hint of stickiness, and a spicy Bloody Mary, I decided that Li'l Dizzy's is my new favorite breakfast place in town.
Li'l Dizzy's food is good, but the food alone doesn't explain the happy crowds piling into the restaurant every day for lunch. I could name three or four places with better fried chicken or a more complex gumbo, although there may not be a better buffet in New Orleans. Wayne Baquet, the restaurant's generous owner and host, can only be found at Li'l Dizzy's. His charm makes Li'l Dizzy's the kind of place that you're sorry to leave and to which you can't wait to return.
Li'l Dizzy's is the Baquet family's 12th restaurant, and Wayne has been in the restaurant business for 35 years. Eddie Baquet's, the family's most upscale restaurant, was located just around the block from Li'l Dizzy's. After selling Zachary's, Baquet planned to open another restaurant, but he wanted to avoid the stress of serving dinner. He also wanted to be located in the Treme neighborhood. "I thought that there was a need for a restaurant out here on Esplanade, and I wanted to put it on the map and make it famous," Baquet says.
Baquet has the enthusiasm of someone who has just opened his first restaurant, not his 12th. "The thing that motivates me," he says, "is the challenge of making sure that everybody that comes through that door is happy, and the challenge of keeping the Creole soul tradition going." He keeps a careful eye on all his employees, but it hardly seems necessary. They all seem to have absorbed their boss's generous spirit. When Baquet sold Zachary's, loyal customers waited hopefully for a new Baquet family restaurant. With the opening of Li'l Dizzy's Cafe, their patience has been well rewarded.