Here's what I like best about Lucile's, the insanely popular, quarter-century-old Creole restaurant: It's in a house. Just a plain, not very large two-story house with an enclosed porch. The place is comfy, tattered, worn smooth by thousands of days of service. There are specials every day, but the core menu hasn't changed much in recent memory. And the food on that menu is the best kind of comforting, coming from recipes and preparations that have been perfected over decades, developing the same kind of hard-won soul as Dad's ribs, Grandma's brisket or Great-Aunt Pooky's old-country way of making tea and kuchen.
Here's what I like least about Lucile's: It's in a house. A creaking, decrepit, threadbare house that has been host to one long non-stop party that kicked off in Boulder in 1980 and is still going full-tilt today. The place suffers from all the troubles that you might imagine would result from a 25-year house party: The carpets are a mess, the kitchen is forever under siege, and the hosts -- in a desperate attempt at getting their place back under control -- have spun off satellite parties in other towns. (Lucile's now has locations in Fort Collins, Longmont, Steamboat Springs and, as of a couple of weeks ago, Denver.) But still the people keep coming, and those who got to the party early now look to be constantly wondering who all these new people are, where they came from, and what asshole invited them inside.
For me, a restaurant crammed into a house has always spoken of decreased expectations, of a casual, homespun vibe without any delusions of excellence. In the ultimate extension of the comfort-food thesis, I wonder why the owners of such places don't just open up the bedrooms as well and offer paying customers the opportunity for a nice nap after their meal. Why not let me sit on the couch watching cartoons while I eat off a TV tray? Why not fire all the cooks and allow me to just raid the fridge on my own, paying a premium for eating someone else's Chinese-food leftovers, Doritos and beef jerky while I put my feet up on someone else's coffee table?
The house restaurant is a weird sub-class in the American restaurant scene. These eateries run the gamut from unlicensed operations in secret spots serving ethnic cuisines to a crowd of repeat regulars and friends-of-friends who, like Dick Cheney, will never disclose the address of their undisclosed locations, to places that open legally in houses and then strive mightily to do everything possible to make customers forget that they're sitting around eating shrimp cocktail and linguine puttanesca in a space where once a toilet stood.
Lucile's falls somewhere in the middle. This place that the Richards family opened 25 years ago -- and for just $20,000 -- is by no means a secret. Everyone knows about Lucile's. People from other states know about Lucile's and schedule a visit into their itineraries when traveling, sandwiching in a quick bowl of gumbo or a plate of eggs Pontchartrain between skiing at A-Basin and toilet-papering Ward Churchill's house.
But over the years, the Richardses have also done very little to disguise the fact that their restaurant was once someone's house. The kitchen is where the kitchen always was -- at the back, blocked off by casually erected service stations. There's a waiting room/lounge on the second floor and a host's table on the first, tucked into a little elbow of protected real estate between the stairs and the wall. Tables are shoved in everywhere, crammed tight against walls and windows, standing in the living room, on the porch, in the original dining room. Leather-upholstered jump seats are bolted to the walls in every odd corner, and the dog-leg routes that the servers travel between two- and four-tops, the host's stand and the kitchen are narrow, crowded and cluttered with purses, jackets, dropped silverware -- land mines of a packed service on a wait all day, every day. There are pictures on the walls of Cajuny things -- hanging beads, alligator masks -- and accordion-heavy zydeco music fills the air, but you still get the feeling that at any moment someone could just stand up, go over to the boombox and put in some tape of his cousin's garage band doing a heavy-metal cover of "Mandy." You're waiting for some knucklehead to come back from a beer run, pulling into the front yard with pony kegs lashed to the bed of his pickup, and for some other jerkoff to spill bong water all over everything.
Despite the servers working the floor in their black polo shirts, the silverware wrapped in soft gingham, the fact that when all is said and done, you're going to have to pay for the privilege of having been a part of this rolling, rollicking, brunch bash, a meal at Lucile's still feels like one big Louisiana-style house party, an oddly well-mannered foodie frat party, fueled on chicory coffee instead of Everclear, regularly spilling out into the front yard and street beyond.
Lucile's has gotten a bad rap for rude waitresses (they are rude sometimes, but never without cause), for servers bungling orders and forgetting plates (which they do), for rushing parties in and out and turning tables fast. But I love the service here; I love every waitress and waiter and busboy and host. They're not rude; they're honest. If you're sitting in a full house with a twenty-deep wait list at the door, prime time on a Saturday morning, hemming and hawing and holding up your waitress by demanding split checks, sauce-on-side or quizzing her about the provenance of the house's sausage, you deserve to be called out for it. I was in the dining room a couple of Saturdays back, cringing as a table of four made their waitress describe every sauce, explain the difference between hollandaise and béarnaise, pontificate on the relative merits between the eggs Jennifer and the eggs Benedict, then demand that she go away and give them more time to debate among themselves. Finally, the waitress said quite plainly that she had ten tables waiting on her, more tables waiting outside, and that they should really just hurry and choose something. "Every extra minute you're in this seat means someone else isn't, and that's going to negatively affect my relationship with you," she said sweetly, smiling.
So they ordered oatmeal, fresh fruit, granola and biscuits and laughed right along with her -- not realizing that the old truism about how a salesgirl calling you "Ma'am" really means she's calling you "Bitch" goes double for a waitress: The more formal and polite a waitress becomes, the more she wants to kill you.
I had the same waitress for my meal. And with a full house and a wait on the books, she got me in, got me fed and got me out again with amazing efficiency, all in less than an hour and with no hostility, masked or otherwise. I tipped large and left happy. It was the most successful relationship I've ever had with a girl. So keep this in mind: If you're getting bad service at a place like Lucile's, maybe you should think about why. The world's full of jerks, after all, and it's quite possible that you're one of them.
I had eggs New Orleans that Saturday, poached perfectly and served over slices of crisp fried eggplant that had gone soft almost to the point of insubstantiality inside their golden-brown jackets. The eggplant was doused in tomato-and-pepper Creole sauce, the eggs with scratch hollandaise, and the entire dish turned into one eggy, soupy, wonderfully bittersweet and savory mess the minute it was touched by a fork. I had chicory and a plate of pillowy beignets dusted with an avalanche of powdered sugar, fried potatoes and a side of thick-cut country ham that the kitchen cures itself. I never order grits, because I don't like them, but the folks at the table behind mine seemed inordinately pleased with theirs. And Lucile's serves lunch, too, but I've never had the presence of mind or the self-control to make it past the breakfast offerings -- except for a catfish po'boy I once took for the road (too fancy with its black-bean mayo and cilantro) and a stolen bite of someone else's crawfish étouffée, which was so good that I regret never managing to order it myself.
But I can't resist the eggs Sardou: poached eggs on a bed of the best creamed spinach I've had outside of an Indian restaurant, studded with Gulf shrimp and slathered in hollandaise just sweet and sour enough to take the edge off the richness of the creamed greens. I have the eggs with hand-squeezed orange juice, which I order even though the juice is too thick and pulpy for my tastes -- because it seems like I ought to have something healthy on the table to counterbalance all the butter and cream and raw eggs that are no doubt turning my blood to the consistency of warm lard.
If I'm not particularly hungry, I'll order beignets and café au lait, lounging by a window and trying to imagine being on Canal Street, pre-Katrina, or tucked away in some hotel cafe in the French Quarter, dressed in a white linen suit and looking for trouble. The buttermilk biscuits baked by the kitchen are huge, made in sheet pans, cut square and served warm -- even steaming on a good day. The pain perdu (French toast) is nothing special, but I like that Lucile's mixes its syrup with melted butter, and the link of hot sausage that comes on the side -- split lengthwise and pan-seared -- is a meal in itself.
The simplest things at Lucile's -- a long bowl of sliced bananas and heavy cream dusted with brown sugar, or a Cajun breakfast of red-bean-and-ham hash -- are beautiful examples of comfort food done right. Over the years, the kitchen has diligently made its own everything, and no one has tried to sneak in lemongrass or frisée or emulsions of anything where they don't belong. Lucile's sells its own hot sauce, and it's good: sweet-hot and peppery, not punishing, not one-note hot but dull, like Tabasco. The kitchen also makes its own jams, its own apple butter and creamy, pepper-spiked sausage gravy, mixes its own Creole seasoning (which the house also sells) and has its own proprietary blend of coffee. Chef Mickey Samuels (late of the Commander's Palace in New Orleans, training ground for Emeril Lagasse and his ilk) came up with most of the recipes used in the back of the house; he ought to be beatified for his biscuits alone. And son Fletcher Richards is now the man of the house, overseeing the party.
If I lived in a house next door to Lucile's, I would be the fattest man in Boulder (though with all the damn triathletes there, I might already be), staking out my territory each morning and suffering through the wait. I would know the waitresses by name and grow huge on Cajun doughnuts, café au lait and eggs Benny in all their Creole disguises. It would be Mardi Gras every morning with no Lenten fast, and Lucile's would slowly become my home away from home until -- 25 more years from now -- I would be one of those old-timers, sitting there sipping my orange juice and poking at my plate of fried potatoes and sausage, wondering who all these damn new people were crashing my party and what asshole let them in.
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