No one would ever mistake Deanie's for a purveyor of health food, especially after getting an eyeful of the chicken-fried steaks stacked under the heat lamp behind the restaurant's cafeteria-style service line, awaiting a blanket of thick, white gravy speckled with black pepper and chunky sausage bits.
But still, most meals at this weekday lunch stop in the Warehouse District come with at least one side vegetable and a substantial salad, which seems a lot more wholesome than much of the competition for quick, inexpensive lunches. For people on the go, a scoop of corn, a few branches of broccoli or Deanie's reliably crisp, refreshing cucumber and onion salad might be the most chaste nutrition they get all day.
It's all a throwback to a time when lunch from a place like this was understood to be a facsimile of home cooking, a working man's kitchen away from home. Today, the clientele of Deanie's is as diverse as it gets in a New Orleans restaurant, with a mix of laborers trailing drywall dust, office workers by the half-dozen per table, cops and fire department brass and guys from the last of the nearby machine shops. They all queue up for dishes that come from the Accardo family, who has run Deanie's off and on since the 1960s, and from a few cooks who have worked there nearly as long.
The specialty is familiar comfort food items. One standout is Deanie's stuffed bell peppers, which erupt with a mixture of ground beef, ground hot sausage and rice that is more like spicy beef boudin than the often bland, conventional stuffed-pepper filling.
Deanie's does more with mirliton than most local restaurants, and the peculiar vegetable responds well to the long, slow, communal cooking process that is the kitchen's calling card. The mirliton's tenacious texture remains firm and ripe-tasting after a smothering treatment with shrimp for a Monday main dish " with fresh, sharp, stewed tomato, crunchy green onion and low-level peppery spice. Mirliton and shrimp join forces again on Fridays in a casserole that is like a dressing or holiday stuffing with plenty of celery for extra body.
The potato salad is an unheralded masterpiece. Whipped smooth, creamy as a dip and suffused with garlic and red and black pepper, its simple goodness is addicting. This could be spread on crackers as fancy fare, but instead is plopped down in oversized scoops on bread plates.
A mid-week mainstay is the white beans cooked down to thick, garlic-laden gravy and plumped with a split, fat link of spicy, deep red sausage. The skimpy, runny seafood pasta doesn't have much going for it, especially not very much seafood. Straightforward pork roast is cut thick and shines with meaty gravy, which also covers the generous slab of hamburger steak that is served most days. The crawfish pie is baked in a single, giant pan from which individual servings are spooned out with a portion of crust and a whole lot of filling, which is like a creamy, spicy etouffée.
Some choices are just too messy to be enjoyable, like the pasta jambalaya, an oily mix of several different types of pasta, clearly leftovers from other days, with very spicy and hot sausage, green onions and too much salt. The traditional jambalaya, made with rice and served on Fridays, is much better. The crab and sausage gumbo, another Friday special, has plenty of okra but mercifully no slime, and a dark, medium-bodied roux, like a city gumbo with country accents.
Breakfast is pretty standard fare, based around a combination of eggs and pork products on a plate or in a sandwich, though in the morning, the mingling aroma of massed bacon in a serving pan and coffee brewing is about all the salesmanship the first meal of the day needs.
Based on the tradition-bound weekly selection of dishes alone, Deanie's seems like the kind of place that soldiers on through the generations, impervious to change. But in fact, change has defined the place over two generations.
The restaurant originally was opened in 1967 by Dolores 'Deanie" Accardo and her husband Philip, and it almost exclusively served a blue-collar clientele from the many surrounding machine shops and warehouses. They closed the restaurant in the mid-1980s, complaining that the World's Fair hurt their business and the neighborhood was deteriorating. The building remained shuttered until their daughter Phyllis decided to renovate and reopen the restaurant in 1993, encouraged by the new convention business in the area and the conversion of warehouses into residences and hotels.
There's no connection to the Deanie's Seafood restaurants in Bucktown and the French Quarter, though the owners have sparred in court over the use of the name. But Deanie's has other direct relations all over town. Today, Dolores Accardo runs her namesake Deanie's on Hayne Boulevard in New Orleans East, where the menu is more about fried seafood than plate lunches. Her daughter Darlene Thomas operates the Point Restaurant & Bar in Harvey, where the line up is much the same as the Annunciation Street model, and early next year her grandson Steven Federer plans to open a new Deanie's in Mandeville.