Closed since the pandemic, Live Oak Cafe returns with music and some changes | Where NOLA eats
The musicians finally returned to the small stage at the Live Oak Café on a sweltering August evening last week, and after their first song, the loudest applause came from the kitchen.
It’s been a while.
This neighborhood restaurant is one of the small businesses that make Oak Street feel like Main Street. With the appearance of a restaurant and a corner location framed by large windows, it has long brought a mix of live music and casual dining.
Corn Live Oak Cafe was closed for a year and a half, from the first wave of the coronavirus crisis here until it reopened on August 19.
Chef / owner Clare Leavy had kept the kitchen running through community feeding efforts, such as Chef’s Brigade and Feed the Front Line of the Krewe of Red Beans. She was carefully monitoring pandemic conditions and had hoped to bring back the coffee when vaccination rates were high and the fall festival season was approaching.
But the pandemic has taken a different turn with the delta variant, and many events that people in the hospitality industry had bet on are now canceled. For this small restaurant, the question has become whether to reopen now or never.
“We’ve been closed for so long and we’re trying to get to the other side. It looks like the window when we have to do it, or it could be the end for us, ”Leavy said.
Reopening now means introducing big changes. Although better known for brunch, the Live Oak Café now serves dinner Thursday through Saturday and brunch only on Sunday.
Reopening now also means bringing back one more stage, at a time when local musicians deeply affected by the lost festival season need any gig they can get. There is live music at the Live Oak Café every day.
This address has a long history along Oak Street. For decades, it was one of the many branches of McKenzie’s Bakery, the long-defunct and endlessly mourned bakery brand where people came to buy turtles and buttermilk candies, petit fours and kings cakes. .
It had a stint as a cafe called Brown’s Diner, then in 2004 it became Oak Street Café. The owner at the time was a musician, and he made live music a part of the daytime routine here.
After Hurricane Katrina, it was able to reopen within a few weeks, initially on the basis of donations. It gave people a place to find a hot meal, a cup of coffee, and a semblance of normalcy in a city in the throes of disaster.
Leavy was working at the Oak Street Café a few years later when the opportunity arose to buy the business. She and a business partner at the time took over, changed the menu with more local sourcing and scratch cooking, and reopened in early 2014 as Live Oak Café (Leavy is now the sole owner).
Along with the new dinner service, a drink list that once focused on Bloody Marys and Irish Coffee now features a more extensive range of cocktails, like a Collins Cucumber running through a warm evening with its light, cool flavor (and, of course, gin).
The dinner menu is short, with about half a dozen dishes, and it changes from night to night. On opening night there was a creative reworking of the kitchen’s signature cookies, thinly sliced and pressed onto the griddle, then topped with fresh mozzarella, grape tomatoes and red onions with a coulis of herbs similar to pesto. It was like a Deep South Caprese salad.
Then came “Mama T’s Chicken Dinner” – a warm duo of braised chicken quarters with a lip-smacking Dijon demi-glace, over heaps of smothered greens and mashed chewy sweet potatoes.
The reopening also brings a robust approach to COVID-19 security, making the Live Oak Cafe one of many restaurants in New Orleans to go beyond even the city-imposed rules. Customers must show full proof of vaccination; negative tests are not enough. Additionally, clients must be 12 years of age or older, as young children are not eligible for vaccination.
It was the only way Leavy thought he could bring Live Oak Cafe back now, after a very long period of uncertainty as to whether the company could ever return.
On the opening night, Keiko komaki played the piano in bluesman Pierre Pierre joined on guitar. As before, during musical brunches, the intimate setting added an extra layer to the performance. There were jokes on the tiled floor for the guests and back and forth for the kitchen staff.
“It’s that sense of community, the special energy that music brings to working life here,” said Leavy. “Restaurants can be exhausting. Having this music uplifts us all.
8140 Oak Street, (504) 265-0050
Dinner Thu-Sat, 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. (live music from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.), brunch Sun 10 a.m. at 3 p.m. (live music from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.)
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