In the popular imagination of New Orleans, places like Liuzza’s by the Track just spring naturally from the cultural firmament. It’s the corner joint with superlative Creole cooking, a cast of characters inhabiting the bar and the patina of time and good stories etched into its ambiance.
In reality, someone has to preserve the old examples and cultivate the new ones, and for Liuzza’s by the Track, that person was Billy Gruber.
Gruber, co-founder of the Mid-City bar and cafe, died Thursday morning. His friend and business partner Jimmy Lamarie confirmed his death, citing complications from diabetes. Gruber was 69.
Gruber had not been actively involved with running Liuzza’s by the Track for several years. But the restaurant still bears his signature, from its menu to its easy bonhomie, and it stands as the masterpiece in Gruber’s long body of work in New Orleans food.
“He made this place; we’re just carrying it on,” Lamarie said. “Really we’re just very fortunate to have known him.”
Wearing a big mustache over a bigger smile, Gruber was a raconteur of New Orleans life and a master of its flavors. He was well known across the city’s dining scene and beloved by those who worked for him.
“He was a good man, and when I say good man, I mean an awesome man,” said Burnetter McMillan, who today oversees many of Gruber’s recipes in the Liuzza’s by the Track kitchen.
“This place is him,” she said. “It’s how he loved food and loved people. And people loved him back.”
McMillan worked with Gruber off and on since 1988. She is one of the few people he entrusted with his famous gumbo recipe, which stands out for the deep flavor in its rusty-red, pepper-speckled roux and the seafood added late in the preparation, keeping it firm and taut. That gumbo joined a menu of barbecued shrimp po-boys, garlicky roast beef and bistro-worthy shrimp remoulade to turn a neighborhood watering hole into a backstreet food find.
In a 2006 interview with the Southern Foodways Alliance, Gruber credited the distinctive gumbo recipe to his mother’s family, who hailed from Chacahoula, a tiny town on the edge of Terrebonne Parish swamps.
His father had an early start in the restaurant business. He first opened a venture called Meal-a-Minit as a teenager in 1935 and built it into a small chain of quick-serve eateries.
Roy Maggio, a friend from his high school days, said Gruber’s own career was shaped by his father’s example. While he had no formal culinary training, he had a natural knack in the kitchen and the drive to start his own restaurants.
“He was always a cook; he was always pulling things out of the fridge to cook for his friends,” Maggio remembered. “Back then, 16-year-old guys didn’t do that kind of stuff.”
Born and raised in New Orleans, Gruber served in the Army as a young man and was deployed to Vietnam. Though he rarely spoke of his wartime experiences, friends said one of his duties was as “a tunnel rat,” scouting the enemy’s underground bunker systems.
Back home, Gruber and his business partners opened a succession of restaurants and bars over the years. He started Mande’s in Mandeville with Radiators drummer Frank Bua, for instance, and later Rhythms in Kenner. In 1989, he opened the Palm Court Jazz Cafe in the French Quarter with Nina Buck and ran its kitchen.
Liuzza’s by the Track, which has no relationship to Liuzza’s Restaurant & Bar nearby in Mid-City, started out as a neighborhood grocery and bar for the Fair Grounds racetrack crowd in the 1930s. The Liuzza family later turned it into a restaurant, though it was no longer serving food when Gruber and Lamarie took over the business in 1996.
“It was really just a dive with a bar and a pool table,” Gruber said in a 2013 interview with Gambit. “I remember someone told me after we got into it, ‘You got the horse-racing season and Jazz Fest season. You got it made.’ Well, great, but that’s only four months and a few weeks. That’s how we realized we had to make it a destination for people all year, and the way to do that was with the food.”
That cooking drew praise from restaurant critics and travel writers and soon put Liuzza’s by the Track on the map for visitors.
Each year during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the bar becomes an ad hoc welcome center, dishing out bloody marys and beer to thousands of festivalgoers on their way to the Fair Grounds.
But day to day, it was Gruber’s rapport with regulars and staff that helped set the restaurant’s identity.
“He was interested in people, and he took care of people. It was just in him. He didn’t have to try,” said Heather Booth, who worked at Liuzza’s by the Track and later maintained a close friendship with her former boss.
“Everyone who ever worked there, and lots of the people who drank there, it’s like a big family, and he created that space for so many of us,” she said.
Lake Lawn Metairie Funeral home will handle funeral arrangements, which are pending.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.