A New Orleans restaurant legacy was nearly lost to COVID-19, this is how it came back to life

Todd A. Price
The American South

Wayne Baquet Sr. had retired once before. That lasted six months. But this time he was serious. After a lifetime running restaurants in New Orleans, he was done. No more serving gumbo. No more making sure that everyone got their fill of fried chicken and bread pudding.

The COVID-19 pandemic had forced the decision. Li'l Dizzy's Café, the neighborhood spot he opened in 2004 and named after his trumpet playing grandson, had been closed since March, like most of the city's restaurants. At 73, Baquet didn't feel safe reopening even once restrictions ended.

The closing of Li'l Dizzy's would end a long run that included more than a dozen Baquet restaurants. The family ranks among New Orleans' most illustrious. They helped build Tremé, the culturally rich Black neighborhood. His great uncle, George Baquet, recorded with Bessie Smith, helped establish the clarinet in jazz and discovered Sidney Bechet. His brother Dean is currently the executive editor of the New York Times.

"You've had a Baquet in New Orleans since there was a New Orleans," Baquet said.

Since the 1940s, though, for most New Orleanians the name Baquet meant good food. With Li'l Dizzy's closed, that three generation commitment to feeding the city would end.

Fried chicken at Li'l Dizzy’s Cafe in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans.

The first restaurant was Paul Gross Chicken Coop, opened by Wayne Baquet's great aunt and uncle and one of the rare Black-owned New Orleans restaurants at the time. It served fried chicken 24 hours a day. Baquet's dad, Eddie, was a mail carrier, but he moonlighted as a manager at the Chicken Coop. When the civil rights protests began, Eddie Baquet fed protestors and let them store their signs at the restaurant.

In 1966, Eddie Baquet quit the Post Office.

"It wasn't enough for him," Wayne Baquet said. 

He bought the Goodfella's Bar for $27,000. To pay for it, Eddie Baquet cashed in his pension and sold the family home. The entire Baquet family — Eddie, Myrtle, his wife, his mother in law, his five boys including Wayne — would live in the back of the bar.

The bar, renamed Eddie's, started with cold Falstaff beer and sandwiches. Wayne Baquet, a student at New Orleans' Dillard University, was the bartender. It was in the 7th Ward, a neighborhood full of Black contractors.

"If it rained, then we'd have to ice down some more beer," Wayne Baquet said.

More:Black chefs stirred the pots for New Orleans' cuisine. But today, they are hard to find.

After graduating, Wayne Baquet left the family business to work for F.W. Woolworth Co. He did well in the corporate world. But in the early 70s, when the company wanted to send him to Mississippi, he quit and went back to work at Eddie's.

"I had aspirations to put it on the map," he said.

Baquet, with his business background, made changes. He replaced the cigar box with a cash register. He bought his dad a meat slicer, so he didn't have to cut each sandwich by hand. And Wayne Baquet "flipped" the place, making the tiny room the bar and the bigger space the dining room.

The most important piece of putting Eddie's on the map, however, had been there from the start: Myrtle Baquet's cooking. Eddie was the face, but Myrtle made the flavor.

One of the local newspaper's food critics wrote a rave review. Suddenly, the customers changed.

"You saw as many white customers as Black customers," Wayne Baquet said.

Famous faces also appeared. The writer James Baldwin. The reverend Jesse Jackson. Singer Teddy Pendergrass. The actor Blair Underwood. Bill Cosby, when he was famous instead of infamous, called Eddie's his favorite restaurant on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson."

"If you brought a Black celebrity into town, you had to bring them to Eddie's," said Wayne Baquet.

More:Rice is a 'frequent visitor' at tables in the South, a new cookbook digs up the complicated way it got there

Eddie’s closed in the 90’s. Before that, Wayne Baquet struck out on his own. He ran a string of restaurants in Orleans Parish ranging from the lunch counter at a downtown department store to Zachary's, an Uptown bistro with white tablecloths. The food at every place was always true New Orleans.

Li'l Dizzy's was supposed to be Wayne Baquet Sr.'s retirement business. It was only open for breakfast and lunch. Most people went for the buffet piled with pork chops, fried trout, fried chicken, baked macaroni and crawfish étouffée. The gumbo, though, was alway the star. While most New Orleans restaurants compete to make the darkest gumbo, Li'l Dizzy's was light and flavorful, like a homemade recipe, and crowded with ham, shrimp, crabs, smoked sausage and homemade hot sausage.

Gumbo at Li'l Dizzy’s Cafe in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans.

Li'l Dizzy's attracted the occasional celebrity or NFL player. The regulars, though, were cops, politicians, neighbors and locals along with a few tourists. It was one of the first restaurants reopened following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and President George W. Bush ate there on a trip to the city after the storm.

On Monday, March 16, Gov. John Bel Edwards shut down restaurant dining rooms at midnight and Baquet closed Li'l Dizzy's.

A month later, he was asked by World Central Kitchen to make relief meals, which were distributed through a church in the Lower 9th Ward. That kept four employees working for a while, but it wasn't long term.

Li'l Dizzy’s Cafe in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans.

The rumors were drifting through New Orleans that Li'l Dizzy's would be one of the restaurants that would not survive the pandemic. In November, Baquet met with family to tell them he was closing the restaurant.

"I knew it was weighing on him, because he's been through Katrina, he's been through all kinds of stuff," said Wayne Baquet Jr. "He was like, 'I can't do this. I just don't want to do this.' And I said, okay, no problem."

Then the text messages started arriving. The city reacted to the news.

"Man, this is a big deal," said Wayne Baquet Jr.

Like most family members, Wayne Baquet Jr. had worked in the restaurants. But he had long decided that the business wasn't for him. As CEO of a grocery wholesaler, he didn't have time to run a neighborhood restaurant. But his wife, Arkesha Smith Baquet, was interested.

"Do we really want to let it end like this?" he said to his wife.

Baquet and Smith Baquet talked for days. They prayed. They cried. And they realized they should buy Li'l Dizzy's.

"We knew that if it happened, I would be the person that would have to do," Smith Baquet said.

Arkesha Baquet at Li'l Dizzy’s Cafe in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans. Photographed on Sunday, March 7, 2021.

Her husband knew she could take on the Baquet legacy. She had worked for a year managing a short-lived downtown expansion of Li'l Dizzy's.

"Even though she's my dad's relation just by marriage, their personalities fit this," said Wayne Baquet Jr. "She has a lot of personality like my dad."

Now, a fourth generation of Baquets are in the New Orleans restaurant business. They are already thinking about the next generation.

"I'm hoping we can have Li'l Dizzy's go another 10 to 20 years. That's my plan," said Smith Baquet. "And then hand this legacy down to one of my children."

As for Wayne Baquet Sr., he is really, truly done with the restaurant business.

"A lot of people don't believe that," he said, "but I'm fully retired."

A painting of Eddie Baquet at Li'l Dizzy’s Cafe in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans. Photographed on Sunday, March 7, 2021.

News tips? Story ideas? Questions? Call reporter Todd Price at 504-421-1542 or email him at Sign up for The American South newsletter. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.