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Steven Wells Hicks is an epicurean essayist and the author of three novels: "The Gleaner", "The Fall of Adam", and "Horizontal Adjustment," all available through amazon.com

Friday, May 21, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Clover Grill

It is tempting to say that the key to the Clover’s success is that everything is served with a side order of attitude, but that would be inaccurate because, really, attitude is the main course.

May you relish my what?

“May we relish your weenie?” There it was, right on the menu of the Clover Grill under the “Clover Weenie.” Even though the revised menu no longer carries that, uh, proposition, the high camp iconoclasm of the Clover remains in full flower 24/7.

An openly gay greasy spoon where burgers are grilled under hubcaps, eggs are scrambled in a milkshake blender and you expect the fry-boys to break into dance at the drop of a counterman’s paper cap, the Clover is the first café you’ll bump into on Bourbon Street once your cross New Orleans’ “Lavender Line.”

Even though the signs may read St. Ann Street, the so-called Lavender Line is the unofficial border separating the bustling commercial section of the French Quarter from its quieter, more residential area with its high concentration of gay residents. Within the lower quarter is a two square-block area known as “The Fruit Loop,” which is the self-described epicenter of the city’s gay nightlife, attractions and events.

The Clover Grill’s location on “the Loop” shares the corner of Bourbon and Dumaine with Café Lafitte in Exile, one of the oldest gay bars in the country. One block further down Bourbon Street is Jean Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, a picturesque pile of a tavern built circa 1772 and reputed to be the oldest continuously occupied saloon in the United States. Go another block and you’ll be at an all-night grocery named the QuarterMaster, but generally referred to locally as the “Nellie deli.” The bottom line is that the neighborhood is sure to make the hardest-bitten homophobe roughly as comfortable as a deacon in a cathouse.

Even though there is no question about the sexual identity of the Clover or a seeming majority of its patrons, most of the stereotypical vamping and camping is played for laughs instead of keeps. Just the same, it can be somewhat unnerving to the unsuspecting, sleepy-eyed visitor who wanders in for nothing more than breakfast when an elegantly made-up gentleman working the cash register breaks into a bumping, grinding lip-sync to The Weather Girls’ rendition of “It’s Raining Men (Hallelujah)” cascading out of the jukebox.

The Clover is a tiny place – only eleven red-topped stools at the split counter and four tables. What’s more, it’s visually bland. The whitewashed exterior probably hasn’t changed much since 1939, the year generally thought to be when the diner opened although no one is sure enough to bet a dollar on it. There’s a fading generic Coca-Cola sign at the corner and the dining room is awash in pink tile. A sign painted on the window proclaims “HAMBURGERS WORLD’S BEST.” If it hadn’t been plopped down in the middle of Bourbon Street, it could be anywhere else in America.

The menu is generic – a build-your-own burger, a short order breakfast, chicken fried steak, a pork chop, waffle, omelets, some predictable sandwiches and, of course, the Clover Weenie. Scattered through the menu are about a dozen quips, the humor value of which generally falls somewhere between a groaner and out-and-out lame. “We don’t eat in your bed, so please don’t sleep at our table. Our chili speaks for itself...sooner or later. You can beat our prices, but you can’t beat our meat.” The only thing missing is a septuagenarian drummer firing off vaudeville rimshots.

It is tempting to say that the key to the Clover’s success is that everything is served with a side order of attitude, but that would be inaccurate because, really, attitude is the main course. Without its sassy, brassy attitude, the Clover would be just another overlooked diner with a New Orleans address. That would be a shame, too, because the food is surprisingly good for its category.

That’s not to say the food is a beautifully styled work of art when it arrives. Chances are it was slopped on a homely ceramic plate that landed at your place at the counter or table with a brusque thump. While the service is both affable and thoughtful, not to mention funny as hell at times, it isn’t graceful. It will be a long time, perhaps one afternoon when there are snowball fights in Jackson Square, before any of them trade in their Clover t-shirts for tuxedos and start tossing out bon mots en Française at Antoine’s.

The food itself makes me think of the point in time, most likely in college, when I discovered that breakfast was more than fuel to be bolted down before dashing off to a snooze-worthy lecture. It’s late night, after midnight chow, designed to soak up excess booze without making someone want another round. This is acknowledged on Clover’s website, where a mini-ad reads, “We’re Open 24 Hours Because Food Tastes Better After Midnight.”

The active ingredient at breakfast appears to be butter, enough butter to make a cardiologist start counting new money or TV chef Paula Deen smile. In fact, sitting on the edge of the flat-top is a tall saucepot of melted butter, into which a ladle is regularly dipped and its contents poured over eggs and grits. If you happen to be sitting at the counter and watching the cook work, you might even feel your arteries clog up right on the spot.

The scrambled eggs and omelets are remarkably light and fluffy, the result of being spun with a splash of water in an old soda parlor milkshake blender. Eggs are fried directly on the flat-top before being (surprise!) finished with butter.

There is the general assortment of meats one expects in a short order joint. Having developed a personal aversion to having breakfast bacon cooked to the point it can be snapped with my fingers, I unthinkingly told the waiter that I wanted my meat limp. Suffice it to say that the ensuing cackling and pandemonium on the part of the kitchen staff reminded me that the Clover probably may not have been the wisest place to make such a request.

The gimmick of hamburgers at the Clover Grill is that when they’re sizzling on the flat-top, they’re covered with a hubcap (always American-made, so they claim), which serves to steam the beef patty while it cooks. What results is a juicy, home-style burger with a homemade flavor, something that seems more difficult to find nowadays, when more and more restaurants cook on open grills or in broilers, and short order cafés have been replaced by fast food emporia. To loyal Clover patrons, their hubcap burger proudly serves as a defiant refutation of food writer Calvin Trillin’s tenet that “anybody who doesn't think that the best hamburger place in the world is in his home town is a sissy.”

In a place where waiters proudly sport ball caps emblazoned with “DIVA” and “Delta Queen,” where hard-earned hangovers are nursed with strong coffee and unsuspecting tourists drop their jaws at the 24/7 floor show, the quality of the food is often overlooked. To do so at the Clover Grill would be a grave injustice. It may not be ambitious, trendy or urbane, but thank God it doesn’t try to be. The Clover dishes up straight-ahead, classic American hash house chow without apology, because with solid, filling food prepared this well, apologies become needless.

Of course the place has its detractors. The Clover is totally polarizing; people may love it or loathe it, but chances are they’ll never forget it. And through it all, the cooks and countermen just keep on dancing.


The Clover Grill, 900 Bourbon Street (at Dumaine)

Open 24/7 with no reservations

Telephone: (504) 598-1010, Website: www.clovergrill.com

1 comment:

  1. Steve,

    "Strong narrative." "On point." "Well-researched." "Thorough." "Thought-provoking."

    Now, did any professor ever write that on a paper of yours at Coe? And, just when was that when you went "...dashing off to a snooze-worthy lecture."?