New Orleans was under a heat advisory last Friday when Wade Buquoi, Carlos Pipper and a few of their pals got the idea to head to Liuzza’s Restaurant & Bar for lunch.
They were coming for the Frenchulettas and fried seafood and also for an antidote to the blazing hot summer day, something they’ve been enjoying at this Mid-City restaurant since they were teenagers back in the 1950s.
“It’s the beer!” exclaimed Pipper.
“Coldest around,” quipped Buquoi. “It’s because of those frozen mugs.”
Now in their 80s, Pipper, Buquoi and their crew have been eating, and drinking, at this quintessential Creole Italian joint for most of their lives, and for most of Liuzza’s own history, too.
On this particular Friday, though, they counted themselves lucky to find Liuzza’s open. Two weeks prior, the now infamous August flood put about 32 inches of water into Liuzza’s street level dining room and bar. It lingered for hours as the city’s response dragged.
The damage wasn’t catastrophic. It paled in comparison to what Hurricane Katrina wrought here. But it was enough to cost Liuzza's 10 days of business. Everything had to be scrubbed down, and equipment had to be replaced, including, crucially, the freezer for those summer-quenching glass beer mugs.
Liuzza’s marks its 70th anniversary this year, and its history is a tale told with red gravy and brown roux, stuffed artichokes and soft-shell crabs.
The emblem of the eatery, though, is a beer served with a frosty haze in a buxom vessel. It’s a distinctive glass that elsewhere might be called a schooner, a globe or a fishbowl, and it’s been adopted by other eateries, like Deanie’s Seafood, Joey K’s and Liuzza’s by the Track, a nearby tavern that's no relation to this one.
At Liuzza’s Restaurant & Bar, the glass is just called a mug, but it is a mythic thing.
Its image is illuminated on the restaurant’s sign like a grail glowing above Bienville Street. It’s etched into the glass door up front, cast into a plaque at the threshold, drawn on the menus and printed on T-shirts.
That mug has always been part of Liuzza’s, said Frank Bordelon, who runs the restaurant with his wife, Lori. As proof, Bordelon produces a picture of founder and namesake Vincent Liuzza from the 1940s pouring a draft beer into a big frosty mug with the same bulbous contours.
Bordelon's mother, the late Theresa Galbo, hauled many of those mugs around Liuzza's. She waited tables here starting in 1955, and by 1981, she bought the restaurant, setting up the next chapter for her family as proprietors here.
"She was a neighborhood girl, and she bought this place with all the nickels and dimes she picked up off the tables as tips," Bordelon said with evident admiration.
Galbo gets credit for creating the Liuzza's Frenchuletta, recasting a muffuletta on French bread because she thought the traditional round loaves were too thick. All through the years, though, no one has wanted to change the beer mugs.
Francis F.J. Hebert has been sipping from them since he was old enough to drink, and he hoisted one to toast Liuzza’s return from the flood with an eight-top of friends. For this group, a Friday afternoon over onion rings and mugs of Coors Light is the downscale equivalent of crabmeat maison and Burgundy at Galatoire's — a habitual gathering elevated to ritual status by the company and the setting.
“This place is the preservation of the typical New Orleans neighborhood bar and restaurant,” Hebert said. “The people here now were coming here as kids. It’s the kind of place you come back to.”
One reason there is a Liuzza’s to come back to is the durable construction of the restaurant itself. The history of the place passed down to Frank Bordelon starts a block up North Telemachus Street, when Vincent Liuzza ran a barroom for a clientele of workmen from the surrounding factories.
“It was just a bar, but every day, Mr. Liuzza’s wife would bring him food, and it was always too much food so he gave some to his customers,” Bordelon said. “Eventually they told him, hey, if your wife would make a little extra we wouldn’t mind paying for it.”
Thus encouraged, Liuzza bought a tumbledown old grocery nearby, razed it and built his restaurant there from the ground up. As the story goes, Higgins Industries, the wartime maker of military landing craft, had a cache of scrap metal stored nearby. Liuzza acquired it to frame his restaurant, and to conduct the work, he recruited Italian craftsmen who had arrived in New Orleans as prisoners of war and stayed in the city after World War II ended. It's one of those loosely documented tales that's part oral history, part institutional lore.
Encased in stucco and concrete, finished inside with pale green tile and glass brick and trimmed outside with neon tubes in the colors of the Italian flag, Liuzza’s has retained its postwar vintage look through decades and successive disasters. Now that it’s back open again, an ongoing 70th anniversary continues in low-key fashion here, with some drink specials at the bar.
Life in a city shaped like a bowl can bring travails and heartache. But as Liuzza’s gets rolling again, it’s a reminder that life is also rich in a city where the connections and stories run deep, and sometimes they're shared around a bowl-shaped mug.
3636 Bienville St., (504) 482-9120
Tue.-Sat., 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sun. 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
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