Robert St. John column

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 15, 2007

Camellia Grill revisited, site of wife-to-be’s compatibility test

By Robert St. John

 On a hot August day in 1989, I took a young, beautiful, and adventurous 22-year-old girl to New Orleans for our first out-of-town date.

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We spent time in the French Quarter and then drove down Canal Street to admire the houses and their architecture. We were at the testing phase of the date to see whether tastes and interests were similar and/or compatible.

At the end of St. Charles Avenue at the river bend sat The Camellia Grill, the last of a breed— the classic American diner— an icon of a bygone era in the restaurant business, but one that was still going strong in New Orleans. Uptown locals and tourists sat side by side on one of the 28 stools in the small, sparsely decorated room and watched two cooks, four waiters— in white, pressed, jackets— and a few busboys serve some of the best diner food to be found anywhere.

My date ordered and ate a chili-cheese omelet— Make that a “yes” in the compatible column. I told myself then and there, “I’m gonna marry that girl,” and I did.

It’s not the most romantic beginning in the history of love affairs, but probably appropriate for me nonetheless. My wife and I have returned to The Camellia Grill many times since that hot August day.

The Camellia Grill was another Hurricane Katrina casualty until April 20th of this year. Over the last 18 months we have traveled to New Orleans many times, each time driving by the diner to check the status of the operation. Each time it was closed.

Someone left a pad of Post-it notes and a pen outside the restaurant. The front door, windows, and walls of the exterior were covered with various handwritten come-back-soon notes from those lamenting the loss of the neighborhood dining institution.

Almost 20 years after I took my future wife on that fateful date, I took my daughter to New Orleans to celebrate her 10th birthday. Over the years she has heard The Camellia Grill-chili-cheese omelet story a dozen times. When I asked where she wanted to eat lunch, The Camellia Grill was her first, and only, choice.

I have a feeling that— like the Civil War and World War II— all future events will be evaluated and remembered as “before” or “after” Hurricane Katrina in this part of the country. Given that, not much has changed at The Camellia Grill since the pre-Katrina days. The walls are mostly bare and are still painted an unusual shade of pink. The artwork is still the same except for the addition of a framed collage of recovered Post-it notes in the shape of a camellia. Linen napkins are still in use. The place seems cleaner. They now accept credit cards, and the hours of operation have been paired down, but they still serve the exact menu right down to the chili-cheese omelet.

Like the pre-Katrina days, there was a line of people on the sidewalk waiting to be seated. The wait for a stool lasted about 20 minutes. My daughter ordered a chili-cheese omelet “like momma did,” an order of fries, and a sweet tea. I nixed the sweet tea and told her about The Camellia Grill’s chocolate freeze with ice cream.

Some say that the official drink of New Orleans is the Pat O’Brien’s Hurricane, others the Sazerac. I hereby tender my vote for the chocolate freeze with ice cream at the Camellia Grill. A chocolate freeze is a combination of vanilla ice cream, milk, chocolate syrup, simple syrup, and ice, blended and served ice cold. It’s a chocolate shake on steroids, and it’s delicious, always has been, always will be.

They still grill a mean burger and they still cook pecan pie in a pool of butter right on the flat-top griddle. The service wasn’t quite what it used to be, but it wasn’t bad. One can’t expect to lose service veterans of 20-plus years and expect the same results.

It was a day of firsts: My daughter’s first chili-cheese omelet, her first chocolate freeze with ice cream, and the first day of her 10th year of life.

As we sat in The Camellia Grill celebrating the occasion of my daughter’s first decade on the planet; I couldn’t help but think back to that first date in August. If you would have asked me then to write a script of how I wanted my life to turn out, I would have been ashamed to ask for the embarrassment of riches that is my wife, children, and family life. I had no idea what life had in store for me. I am truly a lucky man. Welcome back, Camellia Grill.

(For this week’s recipe, grillades and grits, go to the blog on

Robert St.John is an author, chef, restaurateur, and world-class eater. He is the author of “A Southern Palate,” “Deep South Staples,” “Nobody’s Poet,” “My South,” and the newly released “Deep South Parties.” He can be reached at .)