At Mr. Ed’s, passing the reins, and the oyster knife

When Mr. Ed’s Oyster Bar & Fish House opened last month in the former home of Bozo’s Restaurant, it was clear this was a fresh start rather than a revival of the vintage Metairie eatery famous for its raw oysters and fried catfish.

The name over the door is different, the menu is much larger and more contemporary, and the dining rooms are brighter. Customers can even dine at the bar, a practice always prohibited at Bozo’s, just one of the many quirks the old place acquired over more than 80 years in business.

And yet, there is an indelible connection to the past at this new Mr. Ed’s Oyster Bar, one that reaches back through generations of local restaurant history.

“This kid told me when he was 12 years old that he was going to own my restaurant someday,” said former Bozo’s proprietor Chris “Bozo” Vodanovich. “Now he does. I couldn’t think of a better guy to have it.”

That “kid” was Ed McIntyre, and he remembered the story the same way.

His stepfather, the late Bob “Smokey” Curry, ran the Smoke House barbecue restaurant on Canal Boulevard in the 1970s. Curry and Vodanovich were friends and frequented each other’s restaurants. McIntyre was often in tow for those early trips to Bozo’s, which made a lasting impression.

“The place was always busy, and it was where you’d see all the famous people, celebrities who were in town, politicians, athletes, entertainers,” McIntyre recalled. “It was always an exciting place, and that’s what I thought a restaurant should feel like.”

McIntyre spent eight formative years working for the Major family at Metairie’s Louisiana Purchase restaurant before striking out on his own in 1989. Since then he’s opened 14 restaurants, from casual delis to his steakhouse Austin’s.

He was operating four concurrently earlier this year and had no particular plans to add another. But then he and Vodanovich started talking about Bozo’s, and he began to see a new chapter for the storied Metairie oyster bar.

That story actually begins in Croatia, birthplace of Vodanovich’s father Bozo (forget the clown; Bozo is a common name in the Balkans).

The senior Vodanovich emigrated to the United States and found his way to Buras, a hub of the region’s oyster business and the hometown of his future wife, Marie.

They later moved to New Orleans and opened Bozo’s Oyster Bar & Beer Parlor at 2713 St. Ann St. in 1928. Chris Vodanovich was born the same year.

“My parents put me to work at the restaurant when I was 12, just like you’d do in the Old Country,” he said. “One of my first jobs was to deliver food. I’d ride a bicycle down these mud streets, bringing around sandwiches, oysters, whatever they wanted.”

When his father suffered a heart attack in the 1940s, the younger Vodanovich dropped out of Warren Easton High School to take over the family business.

He stuck with it through many decades and changes to come.

In 1970, local restaurant critic Richard Collin wrote that Bozo’s was in “a poorer section of the city and looks so seedy outside that one is surprised at the middle-class atmosphere inside.”

As the old neighborhood continued to deteriorate and the suburbs began to thrive, Vodanovich moved his restaurant to Metairie in 1979, where he and his wife Bernadine developed their restaurant anew.

With their encouragement, the couple’s children pursued careers outside the restaurant business. So the husband and wife team ran Bozo’s directly, along with other relatives, until retiring in 2008.

New operators took over Bozo’s that same year, but the restaurant closed abruptly in April. Vodanovich had retained ownership of the building, however, and he soon sold the property outright to McIntyre.

The menu at Mr. Ed’s Oyster Bar & Fish House now ranges from trout meuniere to chilled seafood “martinis” alongside a few old Bozo’s recipes for gumbo, hamburger steak and cornmeal-crusted Des Allemands catfish.

At the oyster bar, shuckers still open product from Plaquemines Parish. Vodanovich is often there himself now, too, catching up with old friends and dispensing occasional advice to management.

That’s just fine with McIntyre.

“Having Mr. Chris come here means the most,” McIntyre said. “That brings it full circle.

“This has been an important place for our family for a long time and we’re just really proud to have it now.”