The musicians finally got back on the little stage at Live Oak Café one sultry August evening last week, and after their first song, the loudest applause came from the kitchen.
It had been a long time.
This neighborhood restaurant is part of the stretch of small businesses that make Oak Street feel like Main Street. With the look of a diner and a corner location framed by big windows, it has long brought a mix of live music and casual meals.
But Live Oak Cafe was closed for a year and a half, from the first wave of the coronavirus crisis here until it reopened Aug. 19.
Chef/owner Clare Leavy had been keeping the kitchen going through community feeding efforts, like Chef’s Brigade and Feed the Front Line from the Krewe of Red Beans. She’s been keeping a careful eye on pandemic conditions and had hoped to bring the cafe back when vaccination rates were high and the fall festival season was approaching.
But the pandemic has taken different turns with the delta variant, and many events that people in the hospitality industry had banked on are now called off. For this small restaurant, the question became reopening now or never.
“We’ve been closed for so long, and we’re trying to get to the other side. This feels like the window when we either have to do it, or it might be the end for us,” Leavy said.
Reopening now means introducing some big changes. While best known for brunch, Live Oak Café now serves dinner Thursday through Saturday and brunch only on Sunday.
Reopening now also means bringing back one more stage, at a time when local musicians cut deeply by the lost festival season need any gig they can get. There’s live music at Live Oak Café again daily.
This address has a long history along Oak Street. For decades, it was one of the many branches of McKenzie’s Bakery, the long-gone, endlessly mourned bakery brand, where people popped in for turtles and buttermilk drops, petit fours and king cakes.
It had a stint as a cafe called Brown’s Diner, and then in 2004, it became Oak Street Café. The owner back then was a musician, and he made live music part of the daytime routine here.
After Hurricane Katrina, it was able to reopen in a matter of weeks, at first serving on a donation-only basis. It gave people a place to find a hot meal, a cup of coffee and a semblance of normalcy in a city struggling through catastrophe.
Leavy was working at Oak Street Café some years later when the opportunity came up to buy the business. She and a business partner at the time took over, changed up the menu with more local sourcing and scratch cooking and reopened in early 2014 as Live Oak Café (Leavy is now sole proprietor).
With the new dinner service, a drinks list that once fixated on bloody marys and Irish coffee now has a fuller range of cocktails, like a cucumber Collins that cuts through a hot evening with its light, fresh flavor (and, of course, the gin).
The dinner menu is short, with about a half dozen dishes, and it changes from night to night. On opening night, there was a creative reworking of the kitchen’s signature biscuits, sliced thin and pressed on the griddle and then layered with fresh mozzarella, grape tomatoes and red onions with a pesto-like herb coulis. It was like a Deep South Caprese salad.
Then came “Mama T’s chicken dinner” — a homey duo of braised chicken quarters with a lip-smacking Dijon-touched demi-glace, over heaps of smothered greens and fluffy mashed sweet potatoes.
The reopening also brings a robust approach to COVID-19 safety, making Live Oak Cafe one of a number of New Orleans restaurants to go beyond even the city’s own mandated rules. Customers need to show proof of full vaccination; negative tests aren’t enough. Also, patrons have to be age 12 or up, since younger children are not eligible for vaccination.
It was the only way Leavy felt she could bring Live Oak Cafe back now, after a very long haul of uncertainty over whether the business could ever return.
On opening night, Keiko Komaki played piano while bluesman Marc Stone joined on guitar. As before, at the musical brunches, the intimate setting added another layer to the performance. There was banter across the tile floor to guests, and the back-and-forth to the staff in the kitchen.
“It’s that community feel, the special energy that music brings to work life here,” Leavy said. “Restaurants can be grueling. Having that music just lifts us all up.”
8140 Oak St., (504) 265-0050
Dinner Thu.-Sat., 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. (live music from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.), brunch Sun. 10 a.m.. to 3 p.m. (live music 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.)
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