For nearly 60 years, the
Baquet family has fed generations of New Orleanians from Creole
culinary temples such as Eddie's and Zachary's. Now, with the
sale of Zachary's, New Orleans is without a Baquet-run restaurant
for the first time since just after World War II.
Wayne Baquet was sitting at Robin's on Canal Street, washing
back eggs and sausage with a cup of decaf and talking about
his family's life in restaurants.
"Our first restaurant was in the '40s. It was called Paul
Gross Chicken Coop, on the corner of Bienville and Roman in
the 6th Ward, right around here, not that far. Twenty-four-hour
restaurant. My dad Eddie was a mail carrier who always wanted
to operate his own restaurant, so he went to work with his aunt,
who ran the place. Her name was Ada Baquet Gross."
Baquet brought his son, Wayne Jr., to the breakfast interview
to help him sort through his memories. There are a lot of them.
Ada was the first Baquet
to go into the restaurant business. Along with her husband,
Paul, she opened the Chicken Coop in the mid-'40s, just a few
years after Dooky Chase, and both Wayne, 57, and his son, 36,
figure it was among the first African-American-owned restaurants
in the city. It planted the seed for a string of others, all
of them owned and operated by the Baquets, most of them by Wayne
and his wife, Janet.
The last in that string was Zachary's, the restaurant that Wayne
named after his grandson (Wayne Jr.'s oldest boy), and owned
until last month. The sale of the place ended his, and the Baquets',
reign in the New Orleans restaurant business.
African-Americans play a crucial role in every aspect of New
Orleans culinary history, yet relatively few became prominent
restaurant owners. For nearly 60 years, the Baquets were among
the few exceptions. Wayne Sr. had become the caretaker of that
legacy, and the shiver his retirement sent across the family
tree was evident at a Baquet family party thrown in his honor
"There were 40-some people there," said Wayne the
elder, "and Wayne (Jr.) said, 'How many y'all worked for
my dad over the years?' Just about everybody raised their hand."
The Baquets couldn't help but be tightknit. In 1966, Wayne's
father, Eddie, and his mother, Myrtle, sold the family house
in order to buy a property at 2119 Law St. in the 7th Ward.
That became Eddie's. It also became home.
"We lived in the back, and we operated the restaurant in
the front," Wayne Sr. explained. "Five kids, and my
older brother was married (with a child), and he had one of
the little rooms in back. Me and all of my little younger brothers
like Dean and Terry and Rudolph, we had another little room
in the back. My mom and dad had a little room in the back."
Once Wayne Sr. was married, he and Janet got "a little
cubicle" of their own. Not long after, they were joined
by newborn Wayne Jr.
"It wasn't like the Ewings," Jr. laughed, responding
to his father's descriptions of the close quarters.
Eddie's in the early days was a bar that served food, most famously
po-boys and fried chicken. A cigar box sufficed as a cash register.
Many mornings the family would eat fresh, homemade cracklins
prepared by one of the many cooks.
"The way it evolved
was, I ran the front of the house, and my dad ran the back of
the house with my mom (Myrtle) and my aunt (Anna Gibson) and
my grandmother (Eva Romano), who were the first real cooks,"
Wayne Sr. said. "The way the operation ran, we had no employees.
It was just us. (The women) cooked all the food. My dad was
the butcher. He would order a half a cow, do everything to it."
By the time Wayne Sr. was 21, he and his family had had enough
of the "cubicle" and the low pay at Eddie's -- "I
was working for food and rent" -- so he went out and got
a job at Woolco, a division of F.W. Woolworth Co. He rose to
division manager in a couple of years. When his older brother,
Eddie Jr., lured him back to the family restaurant in 1976,
Wayne brought with him a polished approach to business.
Wayne made the decision to; as he put it, "flip" Eddie's.
The bar area, which was always the largest part of Eddie's,
became the main dining room; the small, three-table area that
had been the restaurant became the bar. Wayne persuaded his
father, who struggled to cut meat by hand every time someone
ordered a po-boy, to purchase a slicer and do things such as
peel shrimp and cut apart chickens ahead of time. Gumbo and
red beans became permanent menu items. The cigar box was retired.
"The business doubled in a week," Wayne said proudly.
"At that time, in the late '70s, is when Eddie's made its
name as a Creole restaurant," said Wayne Jr. "They
added stuff like shrimp remoulade, trout Baquet, trout with
crabmeat. It kind of got fancy, but it was still the same neighborhood
People outside the neighborhood took notice.
While the Baquets said that Eddie's always had white followers,
it drew an increasingly integrated crowd to its predominantly
black neighborhood as its audience grew. The restaurant has
considerable posthumous appeal. At Robin's, Wayne Sr. noticed
a cop he recognized at a nearby table listening in on his oral
history. "Ask him," Wayne said, gesturing to the smiling
officer. "He knows how it was."
On "The Tonight Show," Bill Cosby heralded Eddie's
as his favorite place to eat. In 1977, the restaurant critic
Richard Collin praised the restaurant in the States-Item. He
singled out "the brilliant and imaginative kitchen"
and "magnificent" gumbo and oyster loaves while cautioning
readers that the surroundings were less than genteel. "(Y)ou
may even doubt that there is a restaurant behind that Falstaff
sign," Collin wrote.
Wayne Jr., who started working in the restaurant peeling potatoes
at 9, compared the popularity of Eddie's in its heyday to that
of Uglesich's today. "Eddie's was just poppin'," he
said. "Jazzfest, Mardi Gras, you couldn't get in there.
It was unreal." Its success prompted expansion.
"We opened up a place called Eddie's Fried Chicken and
Hot Sausage," said Wayne Sr.
"We wanted to take advantage of the takeout business,"
"And it worked," said Sr. "For the first two
weeks, it beat Eddie's. It was on Paris Avenue. I said, 'Look,
let's open up five more of these places.' (The rest of the family
was) like pulling me back, saying, 'Stop, please. You're going
too fast.' "
The Baquets' emergence as restaurateurs might have created some
friction in the family, but it helped African-Americans stake
their rightful claim to the Creole culinary tradition. Wayne
Sr. rejects the "Creole-soul" label often affixed
to his restaurants over the years. "Creole is soul,"
he said. "Creole food in New Orleans is cooked by the people
in New Orleans who are Creole."
The Baquets certainly qualify. The family's New Orleans roots
go back two centuries. Ancestors include George and Achille
Baquet, both jazz progenitors and accomplished clarinetists.
George played with the likes of Buddy Bolden, Louis Armstrong
and Jelly Roll Morton, while Achille, who played with Jimmy
Durante, moved to California, where Wayne Sr. said he passed
"You'd never find chitlins in one of Wayne Baquet's restaurants,"
said Wayne Sr. "Creole food is crawfish bisque, crawfish
pie, red beans, jambalaya, gumbo."
In 1979, the Baquets attempted to go toe-to-toe with New Orleans'
white-owned, establishment Creole restaurants with the opening
of Eddie Baquet's at North Claiborne and Esplanade avenues.
Wayne Sr. described the place as "the first white tablecloth
service, really, really, nice, nice restaurant in the black
community that wasn't completely in the 'hood."
Disagreements as to how Eddie Baquet's should be run caused
Wayne Sr. to split with his father and Eddie Jr.
Eddie Baquet's closed after two years, but Wayne Sr. and Janet
went on to open a series of restaurants on their own. There
was Cafe Baquet on Washington Avenue and another on Foy Street.
He also directed the cafeteria at Southern University at New
Orleans and opened Eddie's at Krauss in the Canal Street department
By the time Wayne Sr.'s parents lured him back to the original
Eddie's in the mid-'80s, Eddie Jr. had quit the restaurant business
and moved to Houston while the rest of his siblings were pursuing
other careers. Two of his brothers, Terry, Page 1 editor at
The Times-Picayune, and Dean, managing editor of The Los Angeles
Times, are journalists. Eddie Jr. and Sr. both died in the early
Wayne Jr. has helped his father over the years, but he's a certified
public accountant. Knowing firsthand the strenuous work involved,
he has never aspired to be a restaurateur. He was involved in
finalizing the sale of Zachary's, a restaurant both father and
son feel filled the upscale potential that eluded Eddie Baquet's.
It was the last restaurant standing after the original Eddie's
and an offshoot at the Lake Forest Plaza shopping mall fell
victim to the declining fortunes of their respective neighborhoods
in the late '90s.
Wayne Sr. said the 11-year-old Zachary's will continue with
the same menu under new owners Stephanie and Margo Newman. He
will continue to operate his popular fried chicken stand at
the Essence Festival and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage
Festival, and he may pick up some restaurant consulting work.
He's not ruling out getting back into restaurants, but Janet
is "fully retired," and for the time being he plans
to spend his free time with family.
What will he miss the most?
"Seeing people really happy because you are operating a
good operation," Baquet said as his son nodded in agreement.
"Seeing people walk out and say, 'Ah, that's the best I
ever had.' It happened often."
of The Times Picayune July 20, 2004