The Road to West End
ARTHUR NEAD ILLUSTRATION
There is an entrance from Orleans Parish to Jefferson Parish where there is only space for one vehicle at a time, and in this instance it wasn’t my automobile that was gong to be first. I was totally deferent to the Mac truck cab pulling a flatbed that was heading my way. Slowly I backed my car along the thin street that connected to the main road.
Once the truck had cleared I moved forward past the forbidding chain link fence and the sign that said Jefferson Parish.
There is only a sliver of Jefferson Parish at the site better known as West End. In fact that very name is a bow to the city. This stretch of lakefront is on the western end of New Orleans but it is on neighboring Jefferson’s eastern end – nevertheless “West End” it has been and will likely always be.
No one really thinks much about the geography behind the name anyway. “West End” today is more memory than reality. The narrow street, now badly dented by heavy trucks, was once the curved entrance to a row of seafood restaurants. Most prominent was Fitzgerald’s, a huge seafood house with a dining area that extended over the lake. At the entrance to the pier that connected to the restaurant there was a neon sign of a flapping fish. At different times there were different places along the strip including the My O My Club where the entertainment consisted of men dressed like women. (My, oh my.) Other restaurants included Swanson’s, Brunings and Maggie & Smitty’s, where diners sat at outdoor picnic tables long before the phrase al fresco became common. On busy nights the area was fragrant with the essence of seafood boil and fish fry.
There was even a West End style of cooking. Fried seafood, of which the indigenous classic was the stuffed flounder, was always served on a bed of toast to absorb the grease. Next to it was a leaf of iceberg lettuce topped by a slice each of tomato and pickle, and a dollop of mayonnaise. A potato dish would be on the side.
Few places grilled their seafood back then – fried or broiled were the options. Crabs were the most popular boiled item: “Lake Pontchartrain Blues” fresh from the lake. Boiled shrimp could be an alternative or an accompaniment, but seldom was there crawfish. That was some sort of junk food. Its era had not arrived.
Katrina knocked out West End, but the truth is it was already dying. Fitzgerald’s and some of the other places had long closed by the time of the storm. There was just too much competition from other dining places. A person no longer needed to drive to the lakefront to have fresh seafood. A setback was even delivered from Rome when the rules prohibiting Catholics from eating meat on Friday were rescinded. For the seafood restaurants in Catholic New Orleans the biggest night of the week had lost its advantage.
Brunings, though in a different location having recovered from a previous storm, was still in business at the time of the Katrina. Across a footbridge and down the Bucktown road, SidMars still had a busy screened porch dining area. In the yard was often a pile of crab nets. Now the Bucktown road doesn’t even exist, having been replaced by a Hoover Dam-like pumping facility. Where Fitzgerald’s was there is just the remains of an ornate concrete fence that lined the strip. Diners often timed their arrival to witness the sunset. Now the sun performs before an empty house.
In many ways New Orleans is a better place since Katrina, but not at West End. Still, on a pretty day, someone having negotiated the road can stop to look through the rubble at the glimmer of the lake. The fragrance is now that of the sea breeze.