Long before Freret Street was a restaurant row, Dunbar’s Creole Cooking was a food destination here in its own right, and a cultural crossroads for those who shared a taste for its home-style, affordable New Orleans flavors.
The longtime Creole soul food eatery has been in various stages of limbo since Hurricane Katrina, but now proprietress Celestine Dunbar has a new blueprint to return.
“I’m rolling now, we’re doing this,” she said. “My tears of sorrow are turning to tears of joy.”
Dunbar plans to open a new restaurant called Dunbar’s Creole Cuisine at 7834 Earhart Blvd., part of an old brick commercial building in Gert Town. She recently signed a lease on the property and the build-out of the storefront is now underway. Dunbar hopes to open sometime in January.
“It’s going to be just like we did on Freret Street at breakfast and lunch, with maybe a bigger menu and more dishes at dinner,” she said.
Dunbar’s opened on Freret Street in 1985. It was a family-run neighborhood café with a handmade feel, and it was immensely popular among its regulars. These spanned every walk of New Orleans life. The appeal was based on equal parts local character, family pride and Creole flavor.
Metal security grates covered the windows of the nondescript exterior. But inside there were hanging plants under the low-slung ceiling, tables set with linens and utensils neatly rolled in cloth napkins and a genuine sense of welcome. Specials ran through pork chops and mustard greens, candied yams, smothered cabbage, stuffed peppers, stuffed crabs and T-bone steaks. The key dishes were deeply flavorful red beans, well-seasoned, crunchy-crusted fried chicken and Creole gumbo with both okra and a bit of filé.
The restaurant was flooded by the Katrina levee failures. Dunbar didn’t have flood insurance and said she was unable to get Small Business Association loans or other assistance to repair the property at 4927 Freret St., which remains vacant.
“I fell through the cracks, but God sustained me,” she said.
By 2006, she reopened Dunbar’s in an unorthodox second home inside the student center for Loyola University’s law school, serving from a food court-style hot lunch counter while school was in session.
That arrangement ended in 2012, and at the time Dunbar was seeking her own location in Gentilly. Those plans never materialized, however.
For the past three years, she created her own circuit of private gigs for a clientele as diverse as her one-time restaurant customer base, from catering university events to delivering lunches to a Chalmette refinery.
“People always told me when you open your restaurant again, we’re coming to see you, so that’s been encouraging me,” she said.
She’s also worked as a food vendor at festivals and events, including last month’s Treme Creole Gumbo Festival, and the response from people she met at her booth also kept her going.
“Everyone in my line knew about Dunbar’s and kept asking when we’d be back,” she said. “Well, now we have the answer. I’m so happy.”
Dunbar’s Creole Cuisine
7834 Earhart Blvd.
Slated to open in January 2016
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.