Dooky Chase is one of the most beloved and respected restaurants in New Orleans and has served Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush as well as Hank Aaron, Ernest Gaines, Quincy Jones, Jesse Jackson, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles and more. Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday and supper Friday nights, the menu includes Creole favorites like Shrimp Clemenceau and Stuffed Shrimp but it was impossible to resist the allure of tasting as many things as possible with the buffet ($19.95) which started with a spicy vegetable soup and ended with a warm peach cobbler. I couldn’t get enough of the candied sweet potatoes, crispy fried chicken and like-my-daddy-makes green beans.
The food is reason enough to go to Dooky Chase, but the rich and spicy history of the place and the family that founded it are what sets the place apart. Originally a sandwich and lottery ticket shop in 1939, the Treme restaurant was properly established in 1941 by Dooky Chase, Sr. and his wife Emily. The bar/eatery was one of the few places blacks could cash their paychecks so Fridays combined business with pleasure.
In 1946, Dooky, Jr., leader of a well-regarded swing/jazz band, married the now-legendary Miss Leah. In the 1950’s, it was Leah Chase who refined the sandwich shop into a fine Creole restaurant full of beautiful paintings by local artists – the first gallery for black artists in the city (and, I’m guessing, the state). By the 50’s and 60’s, the restaurant became known as a meeting place for civil rights leaders including Thurgood Marshall, Ernest “Dutch” Morial, Oretha Castle Haley and even Martin Luther King, Jr.
At 92, Miss Leah, a Creole herself, is now known as both the “Queen of Creole Cuisine” and the inspiration for plucky dreamer Princess Tiana in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog. In 2010, she added an induction to the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America” to her long list of awards and honorary degrees. “Cutting Squash,” her portrait by Gustave Blache III, is the first painting of a chef to be included in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.
My “ladies who lunch” date was fellow Pussyfooter dance troupe member Christine Miller of Two Chicks Walking Tours. Well-versed in local history, she was the perfect person to enjoy plate-after-plate of well-seasoned traditional dishes with while surrounded by evocative paintings of parades and kids playing trumpet. The bright green walls of the bar are peppered with signed photos from admirers even more well-known than the woman they praise.
The atmosphere is part Commander’s Palace with it’s elegant birthday parties, part serve-yourself from a tongue-tingling, belly-warming Sunday dinner buffet at your Maw Maw’s house. We stayed for hours watching the room empty as our stomachs filled. On our way out, we spied studio lighting radiating through cloudy curtains obscuring a glass-paned door – and peeked inside. The Queen herself glowed in the light, her wide smile shining as she gave another of her many interviews. Her food has tied together equal rights, art, music, history, a community and a city for around 60 years and counting. That’s a flavor so rare it can only be found at Dooky Chase.