If it were possible in the 1950s to see Dooky Chase’s restaurant for what it really was, everyone would have known it was just a shotgun house. A rather typical one, really. Though longer than most residences, it was about the same size as a whole lot of similar buildings around the city, where commerce was conducted in the front half and living took place in the back.
But people of my parents’ generation didn’t see Dooky’s like that in those days. How could they, when most of them originally viewed this place through Little League eyes? When the first time they ate in Dooky’s—or in any real restaurant—was when Morris Jeff, Sr., brought them there for the end-of-the-season awards banquet? The place usually seated 60 people, 65 tops. But for Little League banquets there were more than 100 freshly washed bodies in Sunday-best outfits, all mortally afraid to be on anything but their best behavior. In the minds behind every one of those hundred little faces, Dooky Chase would be remembered as a special place, large and grand.
As this grand vision matured, it would be the backdrop for classroom daydreams as boys and girls imagined that butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling of a prom date so special that it ended at Dooky Chase. The girls always ordered first. It was a custom owing less to etiquette than to economics. How else was a guy to know what he could afford to feed himself unless he had already calculated the cost of what his date ordered?
“When I was in school, that was our Waldorf-Astoria,” recalls Norman Francis, now the president of New Orleans’s Xavier University of Louisiana. “When a guy said, ‘I’ve got a really special girlfriend, and I want to impress her,’ we all knew where she was going.”
Then there was Ray. In those days, Ray Charles defined soul for anybody who had any taste at all. And Dooky Chase was without a doubt Ray’s favorite restaurant back then. He even altered the lyrics of “Early in the Morning Blues” to make the point: “I went to Dooky Chase to get me something to eat. The waitress looked at me and said, ‘Ray, you sure look beat.’”
And it wasn’t just Ray. All the big-time celebrities stopped in at Dooky’s, and all of them couldn’t have been wrong. In 1948, when Louis Armstrong was king of the Zulu parade, his float broke down at the end of the route. It didn’t matter. He was just a block or two away from Dooky Chase, and that’s where he was headed, anyway.
“No matter what time Nat King Cole came, he wanted those four-minute eggs,” Leah Chase recalls. “Lena Horne loved her fried chicken. Sarah Vaughan loved her stuffed crabs. She would eat four and ask me to make her six to take home. Thurgood Marshall always came for his gumbo.”
Dooky Chase began in 1941 as a small sandwich shop, financed by the profits its namesake earned from selling lottery tickets door-to-door. Emily Chase, the first Mrs. Edgar “Dooky” Chase in the restaurant business, was a good cook with a limited menu. Chicken, oysters, fish, or shrimp—you could take your pick, as long as you wanted it fried. But the restaurant, like its patrons, was due for some growing up. Dooky Chase, Jr., had been a bandleader, traveling around the South, playing jazz and rhythm and blues. He fell in love with a girl five years his senior. That in itself was scandalous, but perhaps not so scandalous as what his bride proposed to do to the restaurant her in-laws had built all the way up from nothing.
Leah Lange Chase, who had come from Madisonville, Louisiana, at age 18, had worked in French Quarter restaurants before meeting her husband. Her vision of what a restaurant should be came from the time she spent waiting tables and cooking, first at the Colonial and then at the Coffee Pot. Neither place was fancy, really. But compared to the eating options available in the black community, these segregation-era, white-only establishments were positively luxurious. Leah and the other two “colored” girls who cooked at the Coffee Pot talked the owner into serving daily luncheon specials along with the usual hamburgers. The first of these specials was Creole wieners and spaghetti, a simple, family-style dish that sold well at 60 cents a plate. Not long into her marriage, Leah Chase began putting Creole wieners onto the Dooky Chase menu. But some of her other culinary innovations were not as successful.
“The people did not know what a shrimp cocktail was. They thought it was something to drink,” Leah Chase recalls. “I tried to get my mother-in-law to understand how we served them in the French Quarter. She would say, ‘Why should I change? I’m making a lot of money.’ And she was. She used to sit there and cash checks on Friday evenings. Sit right there at that table near the front door with a cigar box. Maybe $5,000 or $6,000 in that cigar box.
“I remember one dish I was so fascinated with, lobster Thermidor. So I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to serve it.’ Well, that lobster Thermidor came back at me faster than it got out of here. Black folks were not into those cream sauces then. It was before integration.”
There were all kinds of things wrong with segregation, but, for a black business, that violently racist system offered one tremendous advantage. Black patrons were a captive market. But Dooky Chase also profited from its reputation as one of the few places that allowed integrated parties to gather for meals or meetings during the turbulent days of the civil rights movement. “Movement people were always welcomed there,” recalls Rudy Lombard, who would later celebrate Mrs. Chase and other black chefs in his 1978 book, Creole Feast. “It was like a haven.”