We were surprised to learn that Jack Dempsey’s restaurant was named after Richard “Jack” Dempsey, a straw hat wearing, cigar chomping former police reporter for the defunct States-Item newspaper, and not after the professional boxer Jack Dempsey, famously known as the Manassa Mauler.
Dempsey’s, which occupies a white, converted double shotgun house across from the now deserted F. Edward Hebert Defense Complex, is a throwback to a different era of New Orleans, when neighborhood restaurants dominated the landscape, and you never had to walk too far to get a good meal. Everything from the hours of operation to the menu harkens to an era of New Orleans cuisine that has become increasingly harder to find. But inside Dempsey’s, time stands still in the most delicious way. Rich seafood gumbo, crispy onion rings, overstuffed shrimp po’boys, shrimp au gratin and crabmeat stuffed flounder, ribeye steaks and a rotating menu of Creole Italian specialties dominate the menu at this classic New Orleans seafood and chop house.
Husband and wife Sammy and Desireé Baiamonte have run Jack Dempsey’s since 2014, and before that, it was run by Sammy’s mother Diane Marino and her husband Andrew, who bought it in 1980. The restaurant has survived hurricanes, the closure of the massive naval base next door, and a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.
“We have a core group that comes, damn the torpedoes,” says Desirée Baiamonte. “They don’t care what’s going on across the street at the Naval base. They don’t care. They are coming here tried and true.”
Baiamonte has a classic New Orleans “yat” accent, which sounds something more like Brooklyn than Savannah, as the port city of New Orleans was populated by the same mix of Irish, Italian, German et al that informed its northern counterpart. This accent once dominated the 9th Ward neighborhood Dempsey’s is ensconced in, but it too has become an anachronism of sorts, as the demographics of the neighborhood shifted dramatically post-Katrina. In a way, Jack Dempsey’s is like opening a time capsule and finding a love letter to old New Orleans. It’s familiar and bracing, the way both Baiamonte and her clientele like it.
“People know what they come for when they come here,” she says. “I can put a special on the board all day, but when someone knows they come here for a shrimp po’boy, it doesn’t matter what that special is. You’re coming here for the shrimp po’boy.”
When we have special visitors is in town, we always go to Jack Dempsey’s for lunch precisely for that shrimp po-boy, on fresh Leidenheimer bread, “dressed” – New Orleans parlance for a toppings combo of mayonnaise, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and sometimes ketchup and hot sauce, depending on the place – the shrimp golden and fried perfectly. And a heaping plate of onion rings, where a half order can feed four, is always on our agenda as well. Unlike most places where the onions are sliced too thickly and never cook through and the crust falls off, Dempsey’s thinly sliced onion rings have a crisp exterior that is perfectly fused to the tender onion beneath. Served with house remoulade sauce, they are impossible to stop eating.
However, the star of the show at Jack Dempsey’s are the seafood platters – freshly fried shrimp, oysters, soft shell crab or fish, or some combination thereof, piled high atop a bed of french fries, showcasing the bounty of our local waterways. For generations, inexpensive, readily available seafood was the backbone of places like Dempsey’s, and New Orleans’s cuisine as a whole. And while seafood is still the standout, times have changed.
“We’ve never had to pay 90-to 100-dollars for a gallon of oysters before,” says Baiamonte. “But you know, that’s what they are this week. But we never know what [the price] next week is.”
That uncertainty has rippled through the New Orleans restaurant market, with some places removing oysters altogether, along with crabmeat dishes as prices have surged post-Hurricane Ida. Jack Dempsey’s has resisted the urge to alter the menu and is focused on giving people what they want, but it comes at a cost.
“Sometimes [the customers] understand, sometimes they don’t understand,” Baiamonte says of recent menu price increases. “There are those people who do not get it. They don’t correlate the price of gas and fuel with the prices of the products. We get surcharges for fuel on all of our deliveries, not to mention the cost of fishing, the cost of shrimping, the cost of going out in the oyster beds – that all takes fuel, and they pass that cost on to us.”
Despite the current challenges, Baiamonte and her husband Sammy love their restaurant and their customers and being part of the community. They are a true team.
“My husband’s the one in the back with the vision,” says Baiamonte.
Sammy Baiamonte has been running the kitchen for years and crafting the classics and adding his own Creole Italian flair.
“Yesterday, if you would have been here, we had veal Parmesan, eggplant parmesan, spaghetti-meatballs, you know,” Baiamonte says as she reels off a list of red sauce classics. Our mouths watered at the thought.
On this visit, however, we decided to stick with the classics – onion rings, a cup of seafood gumbo, a fried shrimp po’boy – dressed, of course – and the shrimp au gratin that Baiamonte recommended.
The plate of onion rings arrived first, the oval platter barely able to contain the snappy shoestrings. Excessive portion sizes tend to be the norm in New Orleans, but the generosity of Dempsey’s platters is something else – we took some of our half order home. The onion rings themselves were perfect as per usual, and the remoulade sauce is especially good here, balanced with just the right amount of heat.
Soon after came the seafood gumbo, brimming with fresh shrimp and crabmeat and thickened with a light roux and okra, served with just the right amount of rice. A splash of Crystal Hot Sauce was all it needed to make it sing.
When the po’boy and gratin arrived we were already half full, but we soldiered on. The pull of the creamy, cheesy shrimp au gratin and the bountiful shrimp po’boy were irresistible. This is comfort food of the highest magnitude. And as we looked around the dining room, we saw nothing but smiles. Jack Dempsey’s is a restaurant that makes you feel welcome. At the table next to us a young girl was eating her “favorite” macaroni and cheese, and her mother was slightly perturbed that “she likes it better than mine.” A few tables over, two old friends were catching up. You could tell by their familiarity they’ve been coming here for years. This familiarity, a visit to an old friend who cooks great food, is what keeps people coming back to Jack Dempsey’s. But like many small operators, Baiamonte knows how precarious the present moment is.
“We’re here, we’re an independent, we’re a mom-and-pop,” she says. “Please try and keep the mom and pops going, after the apocalypse happens and just the tax man and the roaches are here. Applebee’s and McDonald’s are going to be here, but your mom-and-pops are very vulnerable, especially during these times.”
But if time stops for no one, it certainly slows down here, where a taste of old New Orleans is savored in every bite.
This article was originally published on September 16, 2022.
Published on November 27, 2023