Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Oncale's Restaurant

Grandpère and I went to eat at Oncale's Restaurant in Chackbay today. He had a yen for crawfish etouffée. I like my own crawfish etoufée recipe the best, and I told him that, but he retorted, "Well, you never cook it any more." Fair enough.

Anna Oncale, the proprietor of the restaurant, is 83 years old, and still does the cooking and works the tables. Her picture is above.

Behind the restaurant is a large dance hall that was once a foot-stomping place back in the day, however the glory days are past. Anna showed us a framed copy of this article by David Jacobs in The Daily Comet, which tells of those days:

But Anna Oncale, 82, who said she founded the place with her late husband, Herbert, 60 years ago, remembers when patrons came from as far away as Grand Isle and Morgan City to dance, drink and, sometimes, get a bit rowdy.

“We had dances here for 31 years,” she said Thursday, standing near her empty wooden dance floor ringed with tables sporting plastic tablecloths. “Once we had 600 people here. Some of them had to stand outside.”


They had dances every weekend. She said New Orleans legend Irma Thomas performed there, but most, like the Bel-Airs and Billy Wray & Show Band Royale, are long forgotton. But the beer was cold, and there weren’t all that many entertainment options at the time.

They had a few bouncers, and Oncale herself would wield a big stick from time to time with folks who had one, or two or six, too many.

“You had to have something happening, or you wouldn’t have a crowd,” she said. “One might want to hit the other one, so you had to stop them. They would come back in holding each other by the neck.”

But she said they were mostly well-behaved, and the patrons in her many photographs don’t look like ruffians. The pictures are undated, with black-and-white shots of men in hats and ties and women in ankle-length dresses giving way to color photos of less-formal customers with shaggy hair.

Quite a few folks who grew up around here have told us that they met their spouses at Oncale's. The dance hall is a sight to behold. It's still in good shape, with its large wooden dance floor intact. The juke-box with the old songs on it still stands in the hall. It's a shame that it's not used any more.

She said she has turned down an offer of $100,000 for her building, which features several rooms, including her living quarters in the back. The numerous antiques, like the dusty piano, the clock over the bar featuring the Budweiser clydesdales, and more heavy furniture than she could possibly use, might be worth thousands to collectors as well.

MadPriest, if you are around, I think you would have loved the place in your - ahem - younger days.

Before Katrina, tour groups from New Orleans would stop and eat at the restaurant, but the tourist trade has dried up. While we were there, only two others were at lunch.

Chackbay and Choupic are small communities up the road from us. Just in case you don't know, choupic is also a fish. I have never eaten it, but folks around here fish for it and eat it.

I remember hearing that the fish must be cooked while it's fresh, so I Googled around and found this recipe at Landing Big Fish, which I thought was informal and amusing. It includes this cautionary advice:

...also try to fillet the fish fresh, that way the meat does not turn to "cotton". After you have cut the slab off lay it on a pan and try to pull out any loose scales. Don't worry if you don't get them all just watch out for them when eating.


MadPriest said...

Would The Bel-Airs be the California surf band of that name because they are still well remembered. Bill Wray was in the In Crowd who were also a well know recording group. They were originally called The Vistas and became Bill Wray and the Show Band Royale after the In Crowd. You can hear music by these groups on various compilations still available - but I think they would a bit too poppy for you, Mimi. I know you like more rootsy stuff.

Grandmère Mimi said...

MadPriest, there you go. Aren't you a veritable mine of information! I should have known that you could identify the musicians. I have no idea if the Bel-Airs were the surfers. I'd have to ask Anna.

In truth, I would probably have thought this place was kind of "hick" back then. Every inch of me was a city girl, you see. But then, Irma Thomas went there....

Share Cropper said...

Sounds like a wonderful place to eat, and I love crawfish or shrimp etouffee. And, I can imagine that some hearty dancing and hefty brawls went on there. Would have been my kind of place back in the 60s.

Dennis said...

sounds like a good place to eat. Sad that so many of these local joints are going away in so much of the country - to be replaced by all of the chains.

there is a great book out there on the lack of "third places" in our society, and what you said reminds me of this. The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. Worth reading.

Jane R said...

Oh, grandmère, what a wonderful place. And what a great writeup (and photo!).


Grandmère Mimi said...

Share Cropper, Dennis, the place probably would not be there but for Anna. She does not want to retire. I doubt that whoever gets the property after her will continue with the business.

Dennis, that book looks interesting. We are losing our distinctive places for gathering. Sometimes when you ride through the burbs, it's easy to forget which city you're in, because it's the same businesses wherever you are in the country.

pj said...

I'm gonna pile on and say, "wish I was there." Oncale's sounds like a wonderful place.

Sometimes I think recent events are all part of a conspiracy to turn America into Disneyland, complete with every chain-restaurant you'd ever want. Bleh.

KJ said...

Grandmère. does Anna run a clean establishment, and on a scale of 1 to 10, how would your rate the restrooms with 1 being filthy, and a 10 immaculate and sanitary?

Just wondering.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Anna was as interesting as the place. She spent a long time talking to us while we ate. She forgot to bring Grandpère his water, and she brought me two glasses for my Sprite. She served us the other patrons' meals, which we promptly sent over to their table. A little forgetfulness may be setting in.

She has terrible arthritis, with one shoe with built-up sole, but she's full of pluck and won't give up until she can't walk.

KJ, Anna was immaculate. You would not have needed to use your germ-killer lotion after shaking her hand. The place was quite clean, but I'm going to disappoint you about the rest rooms, because I didn't go there to put them to the 1 to 10 scale cleanliness test. Sorry about that.

Considering Anna's personal hygiene and the cleanliness of the rest of the establishment, I believe the rest rooms would have scored high, and most certainly not even close to filthy.

scott said...

Grandmère, reading this story sent me off the the local Cajun restaurant today where i had a yummy bowl of file' gumbo. MMMmmmm-mmmm!

Wish i could visit the restaurant you describe - those kinds of gathering places are my favorites.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Shouldn't I get a payback from your local eatery for making mouths water for Cajun food? I know that I didn't recommend your eatery specifically, but still...