Last Updated on Tuesday, 20 November 2012 10:53
Bon Ton Cafe
WHY IT'S NOTEWORTHY
It's hard to believe now, but there was a time when crawfish was almost entirely unavailable in New Orleans restaurants. The Bon Ton--long a good place for eating all the dishes made with the mudbugs--was the first restaurant in town to serve unambiguously Cajun food, instead of the related but subtly different Creole cooking in every other local restaurant. After over a half-century, the same old-fashioned style of Cajun cooking is still in place, changeless and good.
The style is one you don't even see in Cajun country much anymore. It's not as highly seasoned as current Cajun cooking usually is, for example. But the recipes are honest and good, and the signature dishes are among the best of their kind. Here is the finest crabmeat au gratin around. The etouffee and other parts of the four-way crawfish dinner are always there for a crawfish fix.
The Bon Ton opened in the mid-1920s across the street from where it is now. It was a standard French-Creole restaurant until the 1950s, when Raceland citizens Alvin and Alzina Pierce bought the restaurant. They shifted the kitchen almost entirely to the cooking of Acadiana. This won the restaurant tremendous national acclaim, keeping it packed lunch and dinner, and popular enough that the Bon Ton could remain closed on Saturdays (as it still is).
Taking up the entire bottom floor of an 1840s building, the dining room is a tall, bright space, with bog windows on two sides and brick walls on the other. The red-checked tablecloths and the homey style of the waitresses--many of whom have worked her for decades--gives the place a decided informality. Despite that, many of the lunch customers are in jacket and tie.
»Shrimp and crab okra gumbo
»Tidbits of fried catfish
Fried crawfish tails
»Salad Bon Ton
Asparagus, mixed greens
»Crabmeat au gratin
»Redfish Bon Ton (with crabmeat)
Grilled Gulf fish, grilled oysters
Grilled Gulf fish, grilled shrimp
»Broiled or grilled Gulf fish, lemon butter sauce
»Fillet of speckled trout, fried or broiled
Fried freshwater catfish
Pan broiled shrimp, garlic-lemon butter sauce
Fried crawfish tails
Crawfish dinner (etouffee, jambalaya, Laurie, omelette)
»Eggplant, shrimp and crabmeat etouffee, parsley buttered rice
»Oysters Alvin (brown butter sauce)
Fried soft shell crab
»Soft shell crab Alvin, crabmeat
Grilled ribeye steak
Grilled veal rib chop, mushrooms, Cabernet wine sauce
»Grilled center-cut filet mignon, mushrooms, Cabernet wine sauce
»Bread pudding, whiskey sauce
Butter pecan ice cream
FOR BEST RESULTS
Make a reservation for lunch, which gets crowded by noon and usually stays that way. Be aware that in many ways this restaurant is a throwback to a time of simpler cooking and service, and that some practices are long out of vogue. Begin with a rum Ramsey, the house cocktail. It predates the Pierce era, and is a kind of sour.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT
I have never been comfortable with the practice here of serving crawfish out of season. (It's frozen.) Many of the recipes use margarine. This restaurant should be above the practice of serving foil-wrapped pats of butter, but there they are.
FACTORS OTHER THAN FOOD
Up to three points, positive or negative, for these characteristics. Absence of points denotes average performance in the matter.
- Dining Environment +1
- Consistency +2
- Service +1
- Value +1
- Attitude +1
- Wine and Bar
- Hipness -2
- Local Color +2
- Good for business meetings
- Open Monday lunch and dinner
- Good for children
- Reservations recommended
ANECDOTES AND ANALYSIS
We may see the first crawfish of the year in the coming weeks (don't hold your breath; mudbugs are unpredictable). Whenever I hear that news, my mind immediately goes to the Bon Ton, the first New Orleans restaurant to make a major specialty of crawfish.
The old CBD standby also comes to mind when the weather gets cold, because of the memory of dinner I had there on a blustery night between Thanksgiving and New Year back in a pivotal time in my life. The Bon Ton is the kind of place that memories are made of, mainly because it's one of the last of its kind. And still good in its specialties.