Big Shirley’s, which Dummett runs with his wife, Suzette, cooks neighborhood New Orleans food. Live here long enough, and you recognize the style immediately and crave it daily.You can still find food like this, of course. It's just that the places you find it are usually aiming a little higher than just the no-frills lunch crowd. The High Hat on Freret is one example that comes to mind. You can get a terrific plate of catfish and side of greens there, but it comes as more of an.. elevated concept.. than simply a quick bite. What's missing from the landscape these days is a menu like Big Shirley's but without the pretense of a concept... or an accompanying "craft cocktail" list.
It’s food like hot sausage po-boys or pork chops with a side of greens and thick rounds of candied yams. At Big Shirley’s, they have meatloaf on Tuesdays, spaghetti on Thursdays and fish on Fridays.
The definition of New Orleans neighborhood food has always been flexible enough to admit new additions. And at Big Shirley’s, you can order jerked shrimp, roasted garlic rosemary chicken and vegetable pasta primavera.
There's also what you might call an "old line" set of standard New Orleans casual places (Liuzza's, Joey K's, Mandina's, Frankie and Johnny's.. a few others.) As pleasant as those places can be, they also can feel a bit like the museum pieces critics like to accuse the French Quarter "Grand Dames" of being. Sure, each is as authentic as it's ever been. But they're also on the list of places we all name when tourists ask for that. Too often a meal any of them feels like a deliberate act of self-conscious preservation.
New restaurants are opening all the time these days. Each with its own kooky point of emphasis seemingly pulled out of a hat by a fourth grader. (Here's an all grilled cheese restaurant! How about a place that serves all ramen noodles! Gourmet popcorn!) I'm sure some.. or even most of these.. little "trend-traps" (TM Kevin Allman.. I think) are great in their own right and I'd be happy to try them all.
But if I were trying to open a new restaurant in New Orleans right now and I intended for it to be around for a while, I'd look for a neighborhood that hasn't had a place like Big Shirley's in a while and then do something very much like that menu.