There is a line from Auntie Mame that always made me think of my grandfather: “Life’s a banquet and most poor s.o.b’s are starving to death.”
In New Orleans, we not only savor the banquet, but demand seconds.
My grandfather was one of that long line of New Orleans restaurateurs who served up a wondrous banquet of food and lasting memories, nightly. Within the walls of his restaurant, generations of New Orleanians came to commemorate the important moments of their lives — and they never starved doing it.
Like the man himself, his restaurant was humble and unassuming. The big brown structure at the corner of Fleur De Lis and Harrison could have been any house in Lakeview. But inside it felt like a family home. It was warm, dimly lit and a little mysterious. Appointed with family pictures and old world furnishings, the place had a spirit and charm that put all who entered at ease. Much of this was attributable to the presence of “Mr. Tony.”
For almost 43 years, in his loose white shirt and dark pants, he prowled the dining room: dropping by tables, hugging old friends, correcting the waiters, mercilessly pinching cheeks, and celebrating birthdays by delivering his trademark raw eggplant (impaled by a plume of uncooked pasta and a lit sparkler). He loved giving his customers a wonderful meal, but he really loved the people.
I received countless emails and posts last week from folks all over the country who wanted to share cherished memories of Tony Angello. Most mentioned his signature dishes; the Eggplant Tina, the Lobster Cup, his red gravy. (If you’ve ever been to the restaurant, your mouth is probably already watering). But beyond the food, people cited my grandfather’s personal touch. “Ha you doin’?” he would rasp when the regulars walked in. “Sit down. Let me get ya’ something to eat.” The welcome was business as usual for “Mr. Tony.”
Whether he was hosting a private room full of out of towners, a couple of widows at a corner table, or Frank Sinatra, everyone was a VIP when Mr. Tony was in the house.
Whether he was hosting a private room full of out of towners, a couple of widows at a corner table, or Frank Sinatra, everyone was a VIP when Mr. Tony was in the house. He particularly relished family gatherings and large groups. The only night he disliked was Valentine’s Day. Lovebirds don’t like interruptions even from the owner. One Feb. 14, he grabbed my arm and walked me into the dining room full of two tops. He ruefully observed, “Look at that. Deuces! Nothing but deuces.”
He was an innovator. In the 1960s while running a lounge and restaurant with his brother in Gentilly, Tony created something called the “Feed Me.” Patrons would simply tell their waiter to “Let Mr. Tony feed me” and he would design a specialty menu just for them. It was usually a hybrid of whatever he was cooking in his private kitchen along with restaurant staples. The “Feed Me” would in time be copied by many a chef.
Creating an experience his customers would remember was his life’s work. I can recall as a child going with him to the French Market or Dorignac’s grocery some summer mornings to scout produce and meats. On one occasion he held a fresh tomato before my eyes — a big juicy number. “If you want to end with the best, you’ve got to start with the best,” he said.
Tony Angello knew how to end with “the best.” When Hurricane Katrina broke the levee of the 17th Street Canal just blocks from his restaurant, most thought it the end of Tony Angello’s. The water swamped his home and reached up to the roofline of the restaurant. But at nearly 80, my grandfather was determined to rebuild. He told my parents, whom he was living with at the time, “I have to rebuild it for my customers. If I don’t go back to my restaurant I’ll die.”
In 2007, in a neighborhood still largely dark and abandoned, he reopened his restaurant to the delight of so many beleaguered and disoriented New Orleanians. The new Tony Angello’s became a touchstone of the city in happier days and a means to remember those who could no longer sit at the linen-covered tables.
My grandfather embodied the communal spirit of New Orleans by making everyone feel as if they belonged. At a time when families treat each other like strangers, Tony Angello treated strangers like family. While feeding us dish after dish of delectable food there was an irreplaceable course that he alone could serve, the one that we will all miss: a sense of being back home.