Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard (formerly Dryades Street) serves as a main artery cutting through New Orleans’ Central City neighborhood, designed in 1809 by French architect and engineer Barthélemy Lafon. In very recent years, the area has seen a re-emergence of the hearty, culinary-based commerce it once thrived upon following the 1849 establishment of the Dryades Market, a cornerstone in the citywide system of public markets. By the turn of the twentieth century, European immigrant merchants had moved in to create a thriving shopping district. The neighborhood supported both Brown’s Velvet Dairy and Leidenheimer Baking Company, both wholesale food service businesses that continue to prosper.
In the early 1960s, Central City served as a hub of the civil rights movement. Though the area was the city’s largest black-serving commercial district, merchants refused to hire black sales clerks and cashiers. Outraged, college student Oretha Castle Haley launched a boycott of the businesses on Dryades Street. In the 1980s, the stretch of Dryades Street from Philip Street to Howard Avenue was posthumously renamed for Haley.
Integration in the previously white-only commercial hub led many merchants and shoppers to abandon the area for the suburbs; economic depression took root. By the early 1970s, the neighborhood had devolved into disrepair, its historic properties decayed and demolished; by the early 1990s, there were more vacant stores than not. All that was left was grinding poverty and its close cousin, violent crime.
A Small Sweets Shop Sparks New Growth
Commonly referred to as O.C. Haley or simply OCH, the boulevard continued its decline to a shrieking soundtrack of sirens. In 1996, Sweet T, a small sweets shop, was established on the ground floor of a community center founded by Rev. Harry Tompson, the pastor of a neighborhood church, to address the living conditions of the neighborhood’s youths. Seeking refuge from poverty—and sometimes neglect and violence—endured at home, neighborhood children swarmed the protective environs of Sweet T. By 2000, the small shop had blossomed into Café Reconcile, the soul food café and storefront for a nonprofit that trains at-risk youths for work in the hospitality industry.
(Pictured left: Fried duck wing confit at Primitivo. Photo by Brei Olivier.) Growth remained painstakingly slow until 2012, when the city invested in streetscape improvements and The New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA), a public agency charged with revitalization, relocated its offices to OCH and launched an $18.5 million mixed-use build-out. To date, NORA has pushed $8 million in public investment into the corridor to leverage over $53 million in additional private investment that has driven the renaissance of the neighborhood.
In 2013, Café Reconcile reopened after a $5 million renovation and expansion. In the past year, the neighborhood has once again firmly established itself as a culinary hub with the opening of the Peoples Health New Orleans Jazz Market, restaurants Primitivo and Purloo, Brady’s Wine Warehouse, and the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. In the past few weeks alone, restaurant Black Label Icehouse as well as Roux Carré, an open-air food court and food-truck lot, joined in the Central City feeding frenzy.
A thirty thousand-square foot fresh-food destination is slated to open any day now in the repurposed Myrtle Banks Elementary School, which spans an entire block of OCH. The stunning renovation includes two full-service restaurants; produce stands; an oyster bar; seafood vendors; cheese, wine, and beer caves; a facility for acquiring hunting and fishing licenses; a bakery; a specialty Cajun butcher; and an outlet for acquiring heirloom produce seeds. An onsite commercial arm will serve as a liaison between local farmers and schools, hospitals, and institutions.
Black Label Icehouse
Open just weeks and the lines snake around the block for Damian Brugger’s Texas-style barbecue. After cooking in parking lots and hosting pop-ups, Brugger made his home in a squat cinder block building that once housed blues joints. There are around twenty Louisiana craft beers on tap, pool tables, and, soon, live music; but the star of the show is the food. Think wicked sweet-heat housemade pickles, smoky brisket, bacon-wrapped jalapeños stuffed with cream cheese, and bleu cheese coleslaw. 3000 Dryades Street. (504) 875-2876. blacklabelbbq.com.
Brady’s Wine Warehouse
Toiling in misery as a Wall Street financial analyst, Patrick Brady had an “ah-ha” moment: I only have one life to live. Why do I want to spend it like this? Thus liberated, the Houma native headed for New Orleans to establish a wine-oriented business. He was drawn to Central City, “because,” he said, “to get anywhere that requires access to the Interstate from downtown, you have to pass this corner of O.C. Haley.”
Affordable rent for his forty-four thousand-square-foot store sealed the deal for Brady, and he opened his eponymous shop last spring. Ninety thousand bottles—many of them priced under $20—are stashed in the cavernous space, and the spirits selection includes many unusual items common on current craft cocktail menus. “Forget snobby tastings and stuffy boutiques,” Brady said. “This feels more like a party.” 1029 OCH, Suite C. (504) 662-1488. bradyswinewarehouse.com.
The celebrated, thriftily-priced menu here includes daily plate-lunch specials like white beans and shrimp, smothered chicken, and rich, dark gumbos. 1631-33 OCH. (504) 568-1157. cafereconcile.org.
(Pictured left: Casa Borrega. Photo by Josh Brasted.) As stimulating and colorful as a Technicolor stoner movie, this is the perfect backdrop for a spot-on celebration of the complex cuisine of Mexico City. The menu changes daily but always includes a fresh ceviche made with local seafood. There’s usually live music at night, an extensive selection of tequilas and mescals, and brunch on weekends. 1719 OCH. (504) 427-0654. casaborrega.com.
Church Alley Coffee Bar
Pour-over coffees from micro roasters around the country. There are also sweet and savory pastries and simple lunch specials. 1618 OCH. (504) 638-0032. churchalleycoffeebar.tumblr.com.
New Orleans Jazz Market
Home of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (which was once a part of the Dryades Market, hence its current name), the market celebrates jazz through performances, tours, recordings, and education. On site are a New Orleans Jazz Archive and tributes to current and past jazz masters.
Open Thursdays–Sundays in the lobby with free live music, The Bolden Bar is named in honor of jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden (1877—1931), a son of the neighborhood. Happy hour begins at 5 pm. 1436 OCH. (504) 301-9006. phnojm.org.
“Open hearth, urban, caveman cooking.” Chef Adolfo Garcia’s temple of smoke and fire opened in the spring with a complex and interesting menu based on live-fire cooking. Check the fried duck-wing confit with herbs and sunflower seeds and the “pastramied” Painted Hills coulotte served with turnip slaw and fluffy biscuits. Winter’s chill will make it hard to resist smoked chicken pot pie with Crowder peas and fresh corn under puff pastry. 1800 OCH. (504) 881-1775. primitivonola.com.
Established by the neighborhood’s nonprofit Good Work Network, this open-air food court has inexpensive foods for sale from neighborhood vendors and caterers. Look for snowballs and exotic tea-based drinks from The Youth Empowerment Project; soul food like yakamein soup from Ms. Linda, The Yakamein Lady; pupusas and other Honduran fare from Miriam Rodriguez, The Pupusa Lady; pork-based dishes and fresh salads from the Splendid Pig; traditional Louisiana cuisine from Estralita’s Café and Carryout; and jerk chicken, curried shrimp and chicken, and fried plantains from Johnny’s Jamaican Grill. 2000 OCH. (504) 309-2073. rouxcarre.com.
Southern Food & Beverage Museum
Housed in the former Dryades Market, nonprofit SoFAB celebrates the culinary origins of the South. A weekly three-course lunch-demonstration class is held every Monday and serves classic dishes with a side of culinary history ($40). Located inside the museum, restaurant Purloo’s open kitchen turns out pan-Southern specialties. The lovely bar, among the oldest in New Orleans, was donated to the museum after it was salvaged from Lake Pontchartrain following Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of the much-beloved, waterside Brunning’s Restaurant. 1504 OCH (in the SoFAB Museum). (504) 324-6020. nolapurloo.com.
• On view until March 2016 isThe Photography of Modernist Cuisine, a collection of gigantic photographs taken by Nathan Myhrvold, on loan from The Boston Museum of Science.
• November 6—7 is South Carolina Barbecue–Culture, Misconceptions, and Preservation. Ten paying guests are invited to stay overnight (November 6) in the Gumbo Garden at the museum as Howard Conyers tends to the in-ground pit cooking of a whole hog. November 7 will be a free day, and all are invited for lectures, presentations, and plenty of free South Carolina barbecue. 1504 OCH. (504) 569-0405. southernfood.org.