We all have that friend. A friend we should probably call more often. One who is always there for us, but we don’t see often enough. A friend who we can pick up where we left off with, no matter how much time has elapsed between conversations. A friend whose company always leaves you satisfied and wondering: Why didn’t we do this sooner?
Buffa’s Bar and Restaurant is that friend. An outpost in the Marigny neighborhood on Esplanade Avenue, divided from the French Quarter by a neutral ground (which is New Orleanian for “street median”). A few blocks away, the classic dive bar Port of Call draws tourists and locals in a line that stretches around the block for their potent drinks and hearty burgers. The French Quarter standard is always raucous, which makes the serene local vibe of Buffa’s on the other side of Esplanade seem even more improbable. But everything about the day that led us back to Buffa’s was improbable.
In New Orleans, water dictates everything. From the neighborhood designs to the street patterns, the Mississippi river and Lake Pontchartrain are bookends, immutable and inextricable. They imbue the city with its personality and provide it with a level of existential uncertainty. Here, the attitude of laissez le bon temps rouler (Cajun French for “let the good times roll”) is more of a practical one – you better get it in today because tomorrow isn’t promised. And sometimes that translates literally: “I know our hours say we open at 10:30am, but something more important came up.” Sometimes that’s a Saints game, sometimes a second line and, sometimes, just a feeling.
And this is how we found ourselves standing outside of a restaurant in New Orleans East, looking through the windows for any signs of life. It was early on a Sunday morning, and my friend Kelly – who is in no way a morning person – agreed to meet me for breakfast. The hours on the door said open, as did the hours on the internet, but the door itself remained firmly closed. Kelly, a radio DJ and daughter of the legendary musician, producer and manager Bumps Blackwell (think Sam Cooke and Little Richard among others), was a good sport, though. I suggested we pick up a king cake from nearby Dong Phuong Bakery and take a ride down US 90 to sightsee. Maybe they were just running late and would open in a few hours.
We took US 90 all the way down into Mississippi. We were looking for Fort Pike, but drove right past it. The sign had been removed. There was nothing around us but fishing camps and open waters when we decided to circle back. And we were hungry. We headed back to our original meet-up spot, but to no avail. The door was still solidly locked. We tried another place nearby, but they were a casualty of Covid. We decided to drive into the French Quarter, and maybe grab a burger at Port of Call, but alas, they wouldn’t open until noon, and our hunger could not be allayed. That’s when Kelly asked: “Do you like Buffa’s?”
“Buffa’s. I do like Buffa’s” I said, mouthing the words like Ralphie in A Christmas Story. Why hadn’t I thought of it? So, we took the short walk down Esplanade and slid into Buffa’s front barroom area. In the backroom, the Jazz brunch was in full swing, but we wanted to talk. It had already been a morning.
We started out with mimosas: Any proper New Orleans brunch begins with booze. They were served in plastic to-go cups, filled to the rim and with no-frills. Light was streaming in through the oval windows, unique to a certain era of New Orleans barrooms (also, usually on stucco-clad buildings like Buffa’s). I heard a story once that this was the building style of Carlos Marcello, famed Godfather of the New Orleans mafia and the alleged mastermind behind the assassination of JFK. I don’t know if this is technically true, but New Orleans is riddled with old barrooms in this style – though few as pretty as Buffa’s.
The bar, originally owned by Vincent Buffa, Sr., “opened in December of 1939 and, before that, it was a pharmacy,” says current owner Chuck Rogers. He leases the building from Vincent Buffa’s sons, and runs the joint with his own sons: Adam, Jarret and Cary. He tells us his wife, Janis, makes the homemade cheesecakes. Although Chuck denies that Buffa’s was ever a mob bar, he does acknowledge that “they used to run book out of the building” and that there is a “spy window” behind the video poker machines in what is now the kitchen, a good spot for someone who might have played the lookout.
While today the bar is more of a community center than casino, it has still has had its struggles. Post-Katrina, when the city began a crackdown on unlicensed music venues, Buffa’s and Chuck ran afoul of local trash collection magnate and reality TV star Sidney Torres IV, who claimed that the loud, live music emanating from the bar made his nearby mansion on Esplanade unsellable. After years of legal wrangling, Buffa’s is thankfully still hosting live music.
“Buffa’s. I do like Buffa’s” I said, mouthing the words like Ralphie in A Christmas Story. Why hadn’t I thought of it?
Buffa’s corner location gives it a commanding presence. The light catches the exterior with a soft glow, and inside the red walls of the barroom are bedecked with black and white photos, old signs and other tchotchkes that give it the well-worn personality of your uncle’s home bar. The bar runs the length of the front room, and the semi-open kitchen, a broom closet really, separates the front from the larger backroom that has a stage for live music and more tables. The backroom was an empty lot at one time where they repaired cars. In the 1960s they built the current structure and added it onto the old building. You used to have to walk through the kitchen to get to the bathroom but, fortunately, that was remedied by the addition of a small hallway at the end of the bar.
With the mimosas flowing freely, we decided to try a smattering of the brunch offerings. Typically, we come later in the day, mostly for the burgers that rival those down the street at Port of Call. While I am a sucker for biscuits and gravy, I decided to try the three-egg omelet instead, and Kelly had eggs over medium with bacon. We both added on home fries and a biscuit. The food came out surprisingly fast, my omelet light and fluffy, stuffed with ham, jalapenos, onions, and cheddar cheese. It was immensely satisfying. The biscuit was tender and buttery, and the home fries had a slight crunch to them. Kelly’s eggs were cooked perfectly; the slices of bacon, crisp yet tender, were gently coiled on the side of the plate. Our bartender was the perfect balance of attentive, entertaining and standoffish. We were never neglected but never felt rushed either.
While we were eating, a tall, affable looking man walked into the bar, an obvious regular. The Treme Sidewalk Steppers’ annual second line parade had the nearby streets shut down, and the man, somewhat nonplussed about how he would get home, struck up a conversation with us. A few drinks later, he joined our table, as Kelly regaled him with tales of Little Richard, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and other luminaries her father had worked with over the years. We were suddenly all old friends who hadn’t seen each other in a while, all of us held together by Buffa’s warm embrace.
This article was originally published on March 17, 2022.
Published on June 27, 2023