When Dooky Chase’s fed both a city and fueled a movement
Dooky Chase’s Restaurant opened in 1941 at Orleans Avenue and North Tonti Street. It had started out as a sandwich stand and a place to buy lottery tickets, but it morphed into a white-tablecloth, sit-down restaurant — and, during the years when segregation was the rule, one of the few places where interracial groups could gather. As leaders of the civil rights movement plotted strategy on such matters as desegregation and voter registration in an upstairs room, they ate food from the kitchen where Leah Chase, who had married into the family in 1946, presided. “Everybody likes a bowl of gumbo,” she said. “I like to think we changed the course of America in this restaurant over a bowl of gumbo.”
Two years after being battered by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing flood, Dooky Chase’s reopened. At 94, Leah Chase still presides in the kitchen. The restaurant is open for lunches Tuesday through Friday and dinner on Friday nights. The most special day on Dooky Chase’s calendar is Holy Thursday, where hundreds flock to the Treme restaurant for Chase’s gumbo z’herbes — and, if they’re smart, her fried chicken.
- The Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. was a big fan of the restaurant’s ribs, Leah Chase said, adding, “James Baldwin just loved my gumbo.”
- In the early 1960s, when Thurgood Marshall was a lawyer for the NAACP, he was lunching at the restaurant when he asked Dooky Chase if he could use the telephone for a five-minute call to Washington. Chase, leery of losing any phone-in lunch orders, asked whom Marshall was going to call. They reply: “Robert F. Kennedy,” the attorney general. “Take 10 minutes,” Chase said.
- Dooky Chase’s fried chicken was judged best in the city in a 2014 contest sponsored by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune.
- Leah Chase has always loved art. Early in her career, she provided food for young artists’ openings, and she became a collector and a trustee of the New Orleans Museum of Art. Pieces by notable African-American artists adorn the restaurant’s dining rooms. Many of those artists, including Jacob Lawrence and Elizabeth Catlett, became her friends.
- Leah Chase was the inspiration for Princess Tiana, the New Orleanian who wants to run a restaurant in the Walt Disney movie “The Princess and the Frog.”
- Revius Ortique, the first African-American elected to the state Supreme Court, had been part of the civil rights meetings at Dooky Chase’s. A grandson, Dr. Alden “Chip” McDonald III, said Ortique took his family there for major celebrations because he wanted them to remember the place where history was made.
- The upstairs room at the restaurant where civil rights leaders met is used for storage.
- President George W. Bush ate there, as did Sen. Barack Obama during his successful 2008 campaign.
- Chase, who told Obama then not to put hot sauce in her gumbo, prepared a full meal for him a year later when Obama visited New Orleans without scheduling time for lunch: 35 pieces of fried chicken, two gallons of gumbo, jambalaya and shrimp Creole for Obama to enjoy on Air Force One en route to California. “I made enough so he could share,” said Chase, who refused to accept a dime for her efforts, saying, “It’s an honor to feed the president.”
It would be easy, and correct, to regard Dooky Chase’s Restaurant as a civil rights landmark and a museum of African-American art. But the diverse clientele is drawn by the food, served in ample lunchtime buffets, and the perpetually welcoming personality of Leah Chase, who can be found chopping and stirring in the kitchen. Despite the death of her husband last year, she remains optimistic — and determined to keep working as long possible. “I love what I do,” she said in an interview in Gravy, the Southern Foodways Alliance’s magazine. “And when people come to visit me, that’s like getting your gas tank filled. You have energy to keep going.”