New Orleans: The Big Speakeasy

Sara Essex Bradley
by David Thier - Louisiana - December 2012/January 2013

Some of New Orleans' most inventive new restaurants are also its best-kept secrets

>See inside these underground gourmets

You know about the legendary old-world dining 
in New Orleans—oysters, candlelight, white-gloved waiters, century-old menus, and so on. That’s not why you come to Marie’s Bar. At this neighborhood dive, you’ll find old men and hipsters arguing over the Saints defense, poker machines that look like they were installed sometime in the 1970s, and a broken guitar on the wall waiting for its owner to come back to claim it any night. But the real magic is in the back, past the magnetic dartboard, where a scrawled-marker sign indicates that something akin to a restaurant occasionally operates here: Kitchen Open.

On a Friday—and only a Friday—there’s a waitress in a polka-dot apron leaning on a gone-era pickup window where, you imagine, someone once served fries and wings before they stopped bothering. The menu is different now. There’s chicken-fried steak so peppery, crispy, and rich that you’re almost afraid of it. The chef stayed up all night preparing the barbecue pork cake that he tops with a sunny-side-up egg and serves on a nutmeg-tinged sweet potato puree surrounded by crowder peas straight from Mississippi. The food comes out on paper plates with plastic silverware, not for the sake of irony, but because, really, they don’t have the money for anything else.

Marie’s alter ego is called We’ve Got Soul, and you won’t find it listed in Zagat. Known as a pop-up, or sometimes, a food speakeasy, it’s part of a growing crop of alt restaurants running on borrowed space and time that bring you something not ready for brick and mortar but hardly low-rent. Joints like this are hard to find and run the gamut of legality—which is, of course, part of the fun. Pop-ups are a national trend among the ultrahip in places like Brooklyn and San Francisco, but they’ve found a special home in always-informal, up-for-anything New Orleans.

We’ve Got Soul is the delicate child of Tres Barnard, a big, bearded native of a town of about a thousand people in the Mississippi Delta. He talks with the easy confidence of somebody who’s put in the work, having cooked under master chefs such as Paul Prudhomme at every station imaginable. Then, he ran whole kitchens as the sous chef at the Royal Sonesta on Bourbon Street. It got tiring. He started putting money in a jar on his kitchen table. When he had enough, he quit his job and went to work making his own food for his own customers. The jar is still on the counter at Marie’s.

“We’re living day to day,” he says with a smile. “If we don’t make enough money one Friday, there’s a chance you might not see us the next Friday.”
Barnard follows in the steps of Cristina Quackenbush’s Milkfish, a Filipino joint that occupied the same space before moving let her run a few more days each week. For practiced chefs like her and Barnard, the pop-up is a way to experiment, or probe the idea of opening a restaurant without diving into debt. For those who attend, it fills an empty niche. And it gives the legions of New Orleans’ strange somewhere to go.

“It’s the opportunity to taste innovative new food while helping restaurants get off the ground,” says Michael Martin, a city planner and speakeasy connoisseur. “It’s a very community thing—you see your friends, and you see people who you know are just out to support these people.”