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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

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

New Orleans Dining: R&O's

Perhaps the best way to describe the extensive menu
is “Round up the usual suspects.”

I’m not one who cheerfully stands in lines. Waiting in line for a table doesn’t raise my expectations, only my blood pressure. Even at my favorite New Orleans restaurant, Galatoire’s, when I see the line extend more than twenty-five feet from the front door, I vamoose.

Consequently, the first time I entered the wraparound entryway of R&O’s in the Bucktown neighborhood, the sight of fifteen benches and a dozen stray chairs ready to accommodate fifty-some customers far more patient than me made for an ominous start. Fortunately, with her unfathomable forbearance of my hair-trigger curmudgeonliness, The Sensible One gently pointed out that the restaurant had just opened for the day and there remained a few tables as empty as the foyer benches.

Truth told, any waiting area one-third the size of the restaurant within often means one of three things:

1. The proprietor is a cockeyed optimist.

2. The owner is hoping that the large waiting area will give the impression of a huge demand for seating and thereby generate a snowball effect.

3. The place is really that good.

R&O’s is that good.

Trying to put a finger on my basis for such a conclusion, I can’t come up with one single reason. Rather, I think R&O’s is one of those cases where, to trot out that dreadful cliché, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Despite only dating back to 1980, R&O’s is a latter-day continuation of the New Orleans tradition of opening as another kind of business before becoming a restaurant. Parkway, one of the city’s premier po’boy shops, began life as a Mid-City bakery. Mandina’s, considered by many the city’s definitive neighborhood restaurant, started selling sandwiches when it was a pool hall. The legendary Mosca’s evolved from a swamp-side roadhouse named Wildwood Tavern. R&O’s, the subject at hand, started in the tiny back room of a ramshackle grocery store.

A true Mom & Pop operation, R&O’s (so dubbed for founders named Roland and Ora) expanded into first a pizza parlor before expanding once again into its current incarnation of po’boy, platter and pizza emporium. While many if not most restaurants seem to lose momentum in proportion with expansion, that isn’t the case at R&O’s, which seems to have expanded its customer base even more rapidly than its real estate.

For the type of place it is, R&O’s is relatively large with a capacity in the neighborhood of 150 people. When the restaurant is full, and it often is, the members of the wait staff have to carefully maneuver trays between the tables to create and navigate impossibly narrow walkways. The attendant noise level puts R&O high on the list of restaurants you’d be least likely to select for a romantic meal, but that’s not the point of the place anyway.

Ultimately, R&O’s is not a place to “dine” in the most elegant sense of the word. Rather, it seems to be the first place anyone on the west suburban part of the city thinks of when someone says, “Let’s go get something to eat.”

The room is as Saturday afternoon casual as the dress code. Multicolored Christmas tree lights line the inside rafters. No matter where you sit, you’ll be sure to see a poster, banner, newspaper front page, brewery sign or knickknack celebrating the city’s beloved NFL Saints.

Despite food that can sometimes prove messy to eat, there are no napkins provided or napkin holders on the tables, but instead rolls of paper towels on vertical stands serve that utilitarian purpose.

As one might expect in a place that clearly caters to a local, working class clientele, the servers, mostly middle-aged women, somehow manage to keep smiles on their faces while ceaselessly hustling an army’s worth of food through tight spaces to ravenous hordes. Despite the fact that I find myself older than the majority of them, the way they coddle and cluck over me whisks me back a half-century to suppertime at Mom’s kitchen table.

The drawing card at R&O’s is the food, period, and there is nothing fancy, pretentious or precious about it. It is straightforward New Orleans casual with a Sicilian “red gravy” accent.

Perhaps the best way to describe the extensive menu is “Round up the usual suspects.” Consider:

· The menu lists eighteen appetizers ranging from seasonal boiled shellfish to French fries smothered in gravy

· There are three soups and a half dozen salads

· Twenty-five sandwiches are listed before add-ons, from the ubiquitous muffuletta to soft-shell crab Parmesan served on sesame-seeded Italian rolls instead of the more traditional po’boy loaf

· Eight mostly Italian specials are offered at weekday lunch

· Thin or thick crust pizzas, both hand-tossed, are available with a choice of twenty toppings

· The twenty-four dinner choices are mainly seafood, Sicilian or a traditional hybrid of the two

· A true, kid-friendly family place, R&O’s offers nine children’s plates of real food (with not a hot dog, hamburger or chicken tender in sight)

Even by New Orleans standards, the portions are generous. Plus, for the underfed itinerant lumberjack or the garden-variety masochist, there are three desserts on the menu and usually a couple of chalkboard suggestions.

The cooking is not imaginative, but workmanlike, and that may be the true secret of R&O’s continuing success.

Even in New Orleans, a city where kitchens seem to be abandoning homegrown traditional cuisine in favor of the trickiest post-hip trend, and so-called (and often self-styled) celebrity/superstar chefs sprout up like so much culinary crabgrass, the number of people deriving comfort from the familiar far exceeds the vocal minority of fad chasers. While I do not have the statistics at hand, I would be willing to wager that during R&O’s 32-year run of dishing up dependability, it’s far more likely that the number of gimmick-chasing eateries that have opened and shuttered their doors can be more easily counted by the hundred than the dozen.

In all candor, were I able to have time for only one meal on a trip to New Orleans, it would more likely be at a place that’s more upscale than R&O’s. There are, after all, any number of restaurants in New Orleans where the cooking is more heroic, the servers more polished and the surroundings more genteel.

That said, there remains a school of thought suggesting that if you want to learn what the city it truly all about, the farther you get away from the established tourism and convention districts, the closer to its heart you’ll get.

You may very well take exception to such a statement, and that’s more than okay, but I know of a place where more than fifty people with growling stomachs patiently sit on wooden benches waiting to disagree.


New Orleans Neighborhood Standards

216 Old Hammond Highway in Metairie

(7.2 miles by auto from the intersection of St. Charles Avenue, Royal and Canal Streets)

Open for lunch daily, for dinner Wednesday through Sunday

All major credit cards honored

No reservations

Telephone (501) 831-1248

No website