Dining Out, After the Stuffing

Updated ideas for the neighborhood restaurant fit the bill for family meals after the big feast.

It might be brined, injected with seasonings, smoked, fried to a golden crisp or even stuffed with other birds for a turducken. But eventually, everyone gets tired of Thanksgiving turkey.

So, even as the fridge groans with leftovers, many will set forth at some point this weekend to dine out. They need variety, they need to air out the houseguests and they need a meal that doesn’t require them to bring a side dish or clean up.

But picking a restaurant under the special circumstances around Thanksgiving can be a little fraught. Crowds in town for the Bayou Classic weekend prompt some street closures downtown. The shopping frenzy creates de facto no-fly zones for motorists around malls.

And then there are the competing expectations of family members along for the meal. Some will be unable to face another roux after Thursday’s feast, while others traveled home for the holiday and did not come all this way for salads, thank you very much.

Fortunately, the wave of new restaurants that has swept the city in the past few years has planted just the right type of eatery for this occasion all across town. They function like our beloved New Orleans neighborhood joints — casual, comfortable, moderately priced — but tend to mix in lighter, more modern and diverse dishes alongside familiar local favorites.

One example is High Hat Café, which blends Southern soul, deep New Orleans flavor and modern sensibilities along the booming Freret Street restaurant row. A few specials tell the tale: meatloaf wrapped in bacon or shrimp Creole for one side of the aisle, roasted flounder with pumpkin calas or grilled wahoo with fresh arugula and a savory but light okra “gravy” for the other.

This year marks the third Thanksgiving for High Hat, and proprietor Chip Apperson said from the start the restaurant has taken on a different feel during the holiday weekend.

“There are lots of groups, we’re always pushing tables together, though we try to keep it to eight or 10 per table at the most,” he said.

High Hat takes reservations for these larger parties, and Apperson recommends that to keep the meal moving they try family-style platters of some of the kitchen’s specialties, like boudin, Delta-style tamales and pimento cheese.

Another contender is Mondo, Susan Spicer’s mid-range family-friendly restaurant in Lakeview. Spicer has won national acclaim over the past 20 years at her flagship restaurant Bayona, but Mondo is a much more modest, laidback venture (there’s even a kids menu).

The restaurant is a gallery of global comfort food, from fish tacos to Szechuan-style eggplant. But there’s just enough Creole flavor to remind you that you’re still in New Orleans – like a recent special of sweet potato and andouille soup.

Meanwhile, Katie’s Restaurant is not new, though these days it feels like it is. Tucked away in Mid-City, this corner spot has been in business since 1984.

But since reopening after Hurricane Katrina, the restaurant underwent a significant retooling and now serves an omnibus menu ranging from traditional New Orleans flavors (roast beef po-boys, shrimp platters, gumbo) to more ambitious seafood dishes (grilled redfish with crabmeat, recently) and a new specialty in pizza. Some of these are straight-ahead pizzeria style, while others are loaded with seafood or barbecue. Katie’s can take you back in time a bit, with the feel of a New Orleans neighborhood joint, but the menu has been smartly updated for broader and more adventurous modern tastes.

Café b is Ralph Brennan’s own interpretation of the neighborhood restaurant, moved a peg or two upscale to keep in step with its Old Metairie address. Here again, the days after Thanksgiving see staff reconfiguring tables like Tetris blocks to accommodate family groups that converge.

“They’re getting out, they have kids coming back home, people are off on that Friday, there’s kind of a festive feel,” said chef Chris Montero.

In addition to rearranging the dining room, Montero said, Café b sees some shuffling of the menu. There’s a turkey sandwich on the regular lunch menu, for instance, but hardly anyone orders it during the holiday weekend.

“When we do specials that weekend they’re as far from turkey as we can get. Those will probably be lobster this time around,” Montero said. “People want anything but turkey.”