Ye Olde College Inn
3000 South Carrollton Avenue
New Orleans, LA
70118-4304 (504) 866-3683
The Olde College Inn really is pretty old, or at least its original, pre-Katrina incarnation was. Started in 1933 as a barbecue joint, the shack on South Carrollton soon became a beloved neighborhood restaurant, serving up mountainous piles of onion rings, crawfish boils when the season was right, and copious amounts of cheap beer. Katrina wiped out the old restaurant, but a hurricane wasn't enough to dissuade new owner John Blancher. A new building was defiantly raised right next door to the old site, and ever so conveniently situated next door to the beloved Rock N' Bowl. The restaurant opened soft with a plain old po-boy menu and quickly graduated to a full service and surprisingly refined eatery.
The restaurant's name may be folksy and twee - after all, any place that spells "old" with an "e" is instantly highly suspect. The restaurant itself, surprisingly enough, is not. Inside, it's all exposed wood, nice paintings, dim light and tablecloths, although the weathered bar features enough television sets continuously looping football to keep the sports fans somewhat content.
The College Inn's management decided to take a turn for the up-market when they relaunched the restaurant, and that's reflected in the menu, made up of updated versions of good old New Orleans classic. The restaurant's owners, stuck in the position of maintaining beloved old dishes or face riot from committed and long term patrons, have put stuff like grilled Mahi-Mahi with lobster beurre blanc right next door to a veal chop with gravy and a selection of "gourmet" po-boys. New Orleans natives will understand that this is an act of rather profound bravery in an old hat local institution.
I sampled the special shrimp and okra gumbo. This was a pretty serviceable gumbo, with a nice thick texture, a good amount of okra and shrimp, and a funky, dark roux. It was a bit greasy, although I tend to find that not-much-of-a-problem when addressing a nice gumbo. Needed some hot sauce but they had that at table.
The onion rings came in a pretty stack. This was not to the liking of one of my dinner companions, who had been coming to the College Inn with his family for as long as he could remember. "They used to come in a big basket, and they gave you a ton of em'," he said. "None of this vertical crap. My mom would be horrified."
Well, there you have it. They were pretty good, though - light and airy batter, not too much of it.
I also tried the crawfish and shrimp salad with what was billed as a remoulade sauce, though it tasted pretty much like a good home-made ranch dressing to me. The chunky cucumber was not, I think, the wisest choice to accompany tender bits of crawfish and shellfish - I say cut it up finer.
The consensus around the table? The Olde College Inn was better back when it stuck to pub grub, and the skimpy onion ring serving - pretty or not - is just about an abomination before the lord. However, I'd like to come and try some other stuff off the menu in the near future. They're said to have a fine hamburger on a Leidenheimer bun, and the breaded veal chop is generally considered a local classic.
Ye Olde College Inn is facing a rather interesting dilemma: upgrading the menu a bit in a town that adheres to food traditions in a limpet-like fashion, without angering the natives too much. Judging from the hopping business the Inn was doing, however, the approach seems to be working out. Music and bowling fans and people who are mad enough to enjoy doing both *at the same time* will be happy to know that the Rock and Bowl and the College Inn are connected establishments. Every entree purchased at the College Inn gets you 5 bucks off admission to the Bowl. Deal.