Sides - Extinct Restaurants

Extinct Restaurants

8400 Oak Street

Here's the second in a series about locations around town that have hosted many restaurants over the years. This week we remember the eateries that have been where Squeal Barbecue is now. It's a good-looking old house which, when it was a residence, must have been very roomy for the occupants. The ceilings are high and the windows large. I'm just guessing, but I think it was built in the early 1900s, at a time when the Oak Street commercial row just off South Carrollton Avenue was bustling.

Two predecessors are below; three more in next week's Extinct Restaurant department.

Lee Barnes Cooking School

The culinary use of 8400 Oak began, as far as I can tell, with Lee Barnes. When she graduated from Newcomb College in the early 1970s, her parents gave her a trip to France and enrollment at Le Cordon Bleu, one of the world's most distinguished centers of culinary education. Lee was so turned on by that experience that she came back to town determined to open her own cooking school. Which she did, in a tiny space on Maple Street. It was all work for a couple of years. She made lots of friends with her Natchez-born sense of entertaining, but no money to speak of.

Lee found that she could use her goodwill to expand into a retail cookware store and a bit of catering. She may have been the first in New Orleans to come up with the idea of making an evening of a cooking class followed by a dinner of the dishes just made.

Lee Barnes Cooking School and Gourmet Shop grew enough to need a space like the one 8400 Oak Street offered. She moved there in 1977, and remained until 1986. Although she became one of the best-known culinarians in New Orleans--as familiar as any chef in town other than Paul Prudhomme--the cooking school steadfastly refused to turn anything like a handsome profit. For that and reasons of health, she shut the place down and moved to Maryland. She died of a brain tumor in November 1992. I and many other foodies remember her sparkling personality, red hair, freckles, smile, and casual, fun approach to cooking.



Paul and Patti Constantin opened their restaurant at 8400 Oak Street just after the first wave of new Uptown Creole bistros had passed. That new style of cooking had not only changed the dining patterns of New Orleanians, but altered the business plans of would-be start-up restaurateurs. The Constantins were just out of college, he with a business degree and sales experience, she with many hours spent working for catering companies.

They started out by serving lunches at Carrollton Station, a bar near the streetcar barn. That got them enough attention that they opened their own place a couple blocks away in Lee Barnes's former building.

The Constantins purveyed a more homestyle menu than what Clancy's, the Upperline, Gautreau's and the other new bistros were giving us. Perhaps this was because Oak Street at the time was quite a bit lower-rent than gourmet bistros' neighborhoods. Jacques-Imo's and other forms of Funky Chic were still years away from catching on.

But Patti was such a fine cook that she developed a unique style and enough signature dishes that people still remember them. I get calls every now and then in search of one of her recipes.

Constantin's menu was on the short side, abetted by more than the usual number of specials. Some of the best were fried, spinach-wrapped brie; crawfish and basil croquettes, and smoked quail--all appetizers.

The pork chop, stuffed with andouille and zucchini, was one of the great entrees. So were the veal and lamb chops and chicken stuffed with feta cheese. The most distinctive entree was called chicken turkonion, made by layering chicken breast meat with smoked sausage and fried eggplant, then covering it with a turkey gravy with a major component of caramelized onions. I always thought of this as a modernized turkey poulette.

They were good with fish, too. This was the time when New Orleans had just discovered grilled fish, and so there was plenty of it, using local species you can't get anymore. My favorite fish dish was almond-crusted sauteed trout topped with a hollandaise made with orange juice instead of lemon juice.

The most impressive thing about Patti Constantin to me was that while she was running her kitchen--a job that takes every minute of your day and every ounce of your stamina--she had three babies. Our kids were born around the same time, and I remember wondering how she did it.

The Constantins were in the forefront of efforts to renovate Oak Street. Unfortunately, those efforts met with little cooperation from the city and the landlords in the area. One night, Paul was shot at as he left the restaurant. Shortly thereafter, they closed the restaurant.

Patti kept up the catering business, however, and she's still in it as Patti Constantin Designs in Catering in Metairie ( Paul has gone back to sales, in the food wholesale business.

I believe it was the Constantins who brought in the fine old wooden bar that the various restaurant tenants and customers of 8400 Oak have enjoyed. It's still there.

Next Week: Zachary's, Margaux, Philip Chan's Asian Cajun Bistro