Before Hurricane Katrina shut it down, the name Barrow’s Shady Inn meant one thing to many in New Orleans: fried catfish.
It wasn’t just the signature of this long-running Hollygrove restaurant. For many years it was the only dish its kitchen prepared, along with potato salad on the side and pie for dessert.
To Deirdre Barrow Johnson, though, Barrow’s Shady Inn meant much more. It meant family heritage, one that reached back for generations. It’s one she feels her own family is finally ready to revive.
Barrow’s Catfish will be a new restaurant a few blocks away from the one Deirdre’s grandfather founded back in 1943, and which became one of the city’s longest-running black-owned restaurants.
“This is coming from the history of the restaurant itself,” Barrow Johnson told the Advocate. “It comes from knowing you’re part of family, a family of black business owners who came out of that era. We need to bring it back. It’s in my bloodline, it’s who I am, it’s what I know.”
Since she began sharing her plans for Barrow’s Catfish on social media early this month, she’s been hearing from old customers eager for its return as well.
The new restaurant is taking shape at 8300 Earhart Blvd., in the restaurant space that was previously LA Smokehouse. The couple hopes to open in June.
The original Barrow’s Shady Inn sits eight blocks away and has since been converted into apartments. Barrow Johnson hopes to imbue the new spot with the spirit she remembers from the old place.
“We want people to feel welcome, we want people to know this is not just about us, it’s about them,” she said. “Their love brought us back.”
The new restaurant will begin with a short menu of fried shrimp and fried catfish. The family will later build it up with more entrees, gumbo and sides. Barrow Johnson points out that the original restaurant once had a more extensive menu too, and when they opened a second location in Harvey in 2004, that eatery also had a larger menu.
Still, the catfish is what people associate with the name Barrow’s. The old restaurant could turn catfish doubters into catfish lovers. The fish was light, not greasy; flavorful, not fishy. Servings were impressively large, and usually entailed leftovers.
The restaurant setting was memorable too. Neon traced the exterior, while inside was a setting of low ceilings, paneled walls, lots of family photos and a juke box filled with soul hits.
Because of the way the Earhart Expressway on-ramp was cut through Hollygrove, Barrow’s Shady Inn was easy to spot from the main drag but driving to it required pulling off ahead of time or quickly circling back.
But its regulars knew the route by heart, and it even made some of the restaurant guidebooks of its day. Writing in 1979, the influential local restaurant critic Richard Collin dubbed Barrow’s the only spot for “consistently enjoyable fresh water catfish” short of a trip out to the fishing village of Des Allemends or to Manchac (home to Middendorf’s Restaurant)
Barrow Johnson was raised in the family restaurant. Her future husband worked there too, starting when he was a teenager. When her father Billy Barrow Jr. died in 1999, the couple took over its management.
After Katrina, they relocated to Georgia. But the draw of home, and the heritage of their restaurant, kept calling to them. They knew the time was right when their son and daughter, Kenneth Johnson III and Destyn Johnson, were old enough to participate in the family business.
“We are grooming them to one day take over,” Barrow Johnson said.
The husband and wife are both ministers, and Barrow Johnson has written books on her faith. Next, she’s planning a book about family. With Barrow’s Catfish preparing to open, perhaps that book will have more chapters on passing down a family restaurant tradition.
8300 Earhart Blvd.
Projected to open in June
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