The Queen of a Cherished New Orleans Restaurant Calls It a Night

The Queen of a Cherished New Orleans Restaurant Calls It a Night
The Queen of a Cherished New Orleans Restaurant Calls It a Night/courtesy

The queen of a cherished new Orleans restaurant calls It a night. For the majority of the 18 months since the Covid-19 outbreak forced the closure of JoAnn Clevenger’s New Orleans Creole restaurant, Upperline, she was positive she would reopen it.  However, that confidence began to fray this summer as she began to confront her anxiety of losing a business she had considered her “platform” for 38 years with the help of a therapist.

“I was paralyzed,” Ms. Clevenger, 82, said, “not knowing what I was going to do with the rest of my life.”

Ms. Clevenger said earlier this month that no matter what her future holds, it would not include Upperline. While the restaurant is for sale, the retirement of its creator, who saw her work as a hostess as a greater calling, marks the end of an era for a business whose charisma mirrored that of its owner.

Gabriel Stafford, 39, who worked at Upperline for 11 years, said, “I found JoAnn to be an enticing persona. Working there made me feel like I was entrenched in New Orleans-ness.”

The restaurant was also one of a small number of establishments that championed an urban-rural cuisine that contributed to New Orleans’ international reputation as a culinary destination.

Ms. Clevenger created items for Upperline’s conventional menu, such as the fried green tomatoes with shrimp rémoulade that became a New Orleans classic, although she was never the cook. Instead, her domain was the three dining rooms. Each served as a gallery showcasing artwork, the majority of which was created by New Orleans artists. When she established a small, short-lived gallery in the French Quarter in 1960, she began collecting the collection.

“I didn’t sell a single painting in three months, so I had to stop,” she explained.

Ms. Clevenger owns Upperline with her husband, Alan Greenacre, and her son, Jason Clevenger, who was the chef when it first opened in 1983. They intend to sell the building and the business, but only if Ms. Clevenger is confident that the buyer will “continue on what we started.” The artwork is also available for purchase.

Ms. Clevenger halted beneath Jean Flanigen’s portrait of a domestic worker with a scarf wrapped around her head (above) in the front dining room during a tour of Upperline last week. Ms. Clevenger commented of the portrait, “Look at how gorgeous she is.” “It necessitates deference.”

Ms. Clevenger proceeded into Upperline’s back dining rooms, which were bathed in the late-afternoon sunshine. Sister Gertrude Morgan, a preacher whose artwork was critically acclaimed before her death in New Orleans in 1980, is depicted in a Noel Rockmore portrait (below, over Ms. Clevenger’s left shoulder). Ms. Clevenger was enchanted by the French Quarter’s bohemian milieu when she was a young woman working in the neighborhood’s bars and restaurants. Rockmore, a revered New Orleans artist of his era, was a fixture in the bohemian milieu that enchanted Ms. Clevenger when she was a young woman working in the neighborhood’s bars and restaurants.

“I knew who Rockmore was, but I was terrified of him,” she explained. “He was a ferocious womanizer.” And he was a heavy drinker.”

Another adjacent Rockmore image shows pianist Frank Moliere (below), often known as Little Daddy – musicians commonly appeared in the artist’s work. Ms. Clevenger was reminded of the night Led Zeppelin’s lead singer Robert Plant dined at Upperline.

“I’m not very well-versed in popular music,” she admitted. “I had no idea he was such a huge deal.”

This was Ms. Clevenger’s experience all afternoon. Artwork brought up memories of her days in the French Quarter as a precocious 20-something from north Louisiana, and those recollections were linked to Upperline’s more recent history. For example, Typpa Hanush, a “very magnificent woman” who sold turtle-liver pâté in the French Market and occasionally babysat for Ms. Clevenger’s children, came to mind one minute. Then, she abruptly changed topics after noticing the table in front of her.

She explained, “This is where Jeff Bezos sat. Mr. Bezos, the Amazon founder and owner of The Washington Post, sat at a table next to the family of Dean Baquet, the chief editor of The New York Times and a New Orleans native,” she told her story. She explained, “I sent them each a short note telling them who was at the other table.” “It’s all about making connections.”

She also sent Mr. Bezos’ wife, MacKenzie Scott, a printed list of local bookstores she likes. “It felt great to be able to offer them a list of the brick-and-mortar establishments he’s about to demolish.”

Ms. Clevenger acted the same way she did when Upperline was in full bloom — as a cultural ambassador, light gossip, and amateur historian.

“She knew how to bring together outstanding elements, both in her dishes and in her dining room,” said Walter Isaacson, a New Orleans native and author who teaches at Tulane University.

She returned to the restaurant’s entrance, past a Joseph Ayers image of Ken Smith (above), the restaurant’s longest-serving chef, who left in 2010 to become a Roman Catholic priest. She came to a halt in the main dining room (below), which had a checkerboard floor. In the center of a window, a photo photograph of Jason Clevenger’s successor as chef, Tom Cowman, hangs. Ms. Clevenger recalled, “Tom was tremendously into reading and art. He taught me a great deal.”

She returned to the restaurant’s front room and picked up a framed copy of the menu from the night Upperline reopened during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (below left). Mr. Isaacson claimed that eating at the restaurant in the aftermath of the hurricane was “where we recovered our faith in the city’s ability to recover.”

Ms. Clevenger said one of the reasons she kept Upperline running so long was because of the thanks she received from consumers during those difficult times. “For at least ten years, my family has been pleading with me to retire,” she stated.

When she worked on Bourbon Street in the 1960s and 1970s, she revealed what drew her to the industry. She remarked, “I remembered stuff about the clients, bartenders, and other people who worked on the street. And they loved it, and it made me happy that I was able to make them happy. So it’s a good-willed circle.”

Ms. Clevenger was back in those days again a few minutes later, as she added a story to a photo of Bourbon House (above right), the French Quarter pub where she met Tennessee Williams. She explained, “His relative introduced us. Her name was Stella,” says the narrator.

Mr. Greenacre, who had slipped into the restaurant unobserved, said, “Take a look at the gorgeous sky, JoAnn.”

Ms. Clevenger walked up to the window, chuckled at the beauty of the departing light, and flung open the shutters for one final snap.

“Let’s get it before it vanishes,” she added.


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