I can't count the number of times I've heard someone lament that there should be more good breakfast places in New Orleans. My neighbors Erich and Jennifer Weishaupt have their own personal tally, however, and it adds up to once too often.
Not only were they vocal in their desire for a breakfast joint in our Mid-City neighborhood, they were very specific about where it should go. They felt strongly that one should replace Tony's Grocery Store, a once-respectable corner store that had devolved into a leaky, litter-ridden blight of a place where a clear plastic barrier protected clerks from their customers as they sold them super-size beer cans and cigarettes one at a time.
The owners were unreceptive to perennial efforts to buy them out of the teetering old two-story building. Then Katrina happened, and everything changed. The building was bought by another set of neighbors, Louisiana Cookin' magazine publisher Romney Richard and her husband Charlie, who began the daunting task of fixing it up. In time, they relocated their offices to the second floor, and they approached Erich and Jennifer with the proposal that they lease the ground floor and put their money where their mouths had been with all that talk about the need for a new breakfast place. The result is the Ruby Slipper.
I live across the street from the Weishaupts and around the corner from the Ruby Slipper. There was never a question of me trying to slip in to anonymously assess the quality of food or service. But I knew I would write about it anyway, because I've never had such an intimate view into the process of a new restaurant coming together, nor of the impact on a neighborhood of something as seemingly simple as a new place serving eggs and pancakes early in the morning and burgers and salads in the afternoon.
The Weishaupts kept me abreast of their project by hollering updates across the street as I walked my dogs and they walked their 2-year-old son down to the streetcar. When the Ruby Slipper finally opened in April, there was much more hollering on the block, this time from our other neighbors excitedly firing al fresco analyses of their meals from porch to porch as they walked back home. I ate at the Ruby Slipper eight times in the first 10 days it was open, and on each visit there was at least one other table full of people I knew from the surrounding blocks. I watched couples become groups as people invited their friends over to join them for a meal. Single diners would arrive with newspapers that remained unread as they instead talked with patrons across the aisle. One reason I think the waitresses smile so much here is because so many customers are beaming back up at them. It's clear the Weishaupts aren't the only ones who think this place is a good idea.
I was frankly amazed they took it on, however. Erich, a former offshore oil worker, has been busy buying and renovating neglected, flood-damaged Mid-City houses. Jennifer works full time in industrial safety for Shell and is president of the Mid-City Neighborhood Association. Together, the only restaurant experience they can point to are Jennifer's after-school jobs at a McDonald's and a Greek diner as a teenager growing up on Long Island. Still, somewhere along the way they studied up on restaurant management, asked a lot of questions at the restaurants they frequented and shoehorned in the time to create a restaurant from scratch.
Like a lot of good things that percolate up from a neighborhood, cooperative relationships help make Ruby Slipper work. For instance, baker Leslie Manuel uses the kitchen at night for her own dessert and pastry catering operation and in return provides the café with fresh biscuits, cupcakes and jars of scones and biscotti. Local groups and parties have rented out the dining room in the evenings for private events.
The kitchen is headed up by Michael Beasley, a recent transplant from California. New Orleans overtly shows up on his menu mainly in specials like sweet potato bisque and omelets stuffed with plump, spicy crawfish. For the rest of the kitchen staff, the Weishaupts hired three men from Café Reconcile, the Central City nonprofit that helps young people who have had a rough ride learn interpersonal skills and gain marketable restaurant experience.
Before Katrina, the corner store here was a place where junior varsity boys loitered outside to cast hard looks at anyone who drove or walked past. Today, the same building sports active professional offices upstairs and the quintessential neighborhood café downstairs. The owners and most of the employees walk to work, and many of the customers walk to its door as well. The kitchen uses a lot of local ingredients, from Creole Country sausage to Leidenheimer bread to coffee that was roasted less than a mile away. People keep the place busy after hours with their own cottage industries. Planners might consider this a textbook example of new urbanism. To me, it's a hands-on, fork-first example of what has long made New Orleans neighborhoods so appealing and of the potential that makes them worth believing in today.