Through four decades and through several incarnations, Dunbar’s Creole Cuisine has given New Orleans a taste of soulful country Louisiana cooking transported to the city. Now, though, the restaurant has closed for good, another hit to the local dining scene through the travails of the past two years.
The restaurant at 7834 Earhart Blvd. in Gert Town has been shuttered since November; this week, founder Celestina “Tina” Dunbar confirmed it won’t reopen.
The family-run restaurant had been on shaky ground through the pandemic; last year it even took part in a Food Network reality TV show to try to find a new spark. But Dunbar said slow business and difficulties finding staff continued.
Losses from Hurricane Ida proved the last straw, she said, a lament shared at a slew of small local restaurants after the disaster piled on to already-stressed businesses.
“Things were getting a little bit better, then Ida came along,” she said. “Every time we’d get going, we’d get knocked down again.”
Dunbar, now 78, says she plans to do some catering. She wouldn’t rule out another rendition of Dunbar’s returning in a different location, but no such plans are in the works right now.
The restaurant served gumbo, generous plate lunches of red beans and stuffed cabbage with fried chicken and big cups of sweet tea. Those have been the staples through many chapters of Dunbar’s as it grew into one of the city’s old school Black Creole restaurants.
This Earhart Boulevard edition of Dunbar’s was only a few years old when the pandemic hit. It was best known for its time on Freret Street, a run of nearly 20 years in the time before Freret emerged as a bustling restaurant row.
But the roots go back further. Dunbar learned to cook at home in the River Parishes town of Paulina, and her father Louis Morris was her first teacher.
She had already worked for 16 years in health care before she started cooking professionally. A tiny deli near her home on Oak Street closed down, and she decided to take over in 1983. It was a homespun start. She prepared meals in her home kitchen and ferried the provisions across the street at lunchtime. Initially it was just one dish of the day, plus po-boys and salads.
Her late husband, Hillard Dunbar, cooked the biscuits and smothered liver in the mornings before heading off for his carpentry job. Their children and, later, grandchildren, worked at the restaurant.
The daily specials evolved into a familiar weekly cadence – red beans or lima beans with fried chicken on Mondays, candied yams with cabbage or barbecue chicken on Tuesdays, meatloaf with smothered potatoes on Wednesday and mustard greens with turkey necks or fried chicken on Thursdays.
When the line for lunch started to extend out the door, Dunbar knew she was on to something. She first relocated to a larger location on Oak Street and then, in 1986, moved to Freret Street.
Dunbar’s earned a wider following here, but it remained the epitome of the local mom-and-pop. Under its low-slung ceiling, you’d find college students and neighborhood regulars stretching their dining dollar on the same food.
After Hurricane Katrina flooded the restaurant, Dunbar was stuck. She had no insurance to rebuild and could not access government loans to help. She kept cooking, though, mainly through catering gigs and with a lunch service for refinery crews outside the city. Eventually, she opened a stand in a Loyola University student center, which while it lasted became an underground find for those who knew and missed the old Dunbar’s.
When the ribbon was finally cut on its next home on Earhart Boulevard in 2017 many of Dunbar’s old regulars returned.
In the pandemic, the restaurant tried the various and shifting business survival tactics of takeout and delivery, but it was struggling.
Last year, Dunbar’s got a makeover from the Food Network series “Restaurant: Impossible” and a new dishes from British celebrity chef Robert Irvine. For a time, the restaurant served two parallel menus, one with Dunbar’s signatures, and another with the dishes from the show – like garlicky collard greens dip, burgers topped with fried oysters and Rockefeller sauce, and potato skins with crawfish étouffée.
The family was hopeful this change would reinvigorate the restaurant, but the loss of inventory and business from the blackout that Ida left few options.
“I put all I had into it,” Dunbar said. “It just got too much for me.”
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