NEW ORLEANS — JoAnn Clevenger was certain she would reopen Upperline, her New Orleans Creole restaurant, for most of the 18 months since the Covid-19 pandemic forced its closing. That confidence began cracking this past summer, as she began, with the help of a therapist, to confront her fear of losing a business she regarded as her “platform” for 38 years.
“I was paralyzed not knowing what I was going to do with the rest of my life,” said Ms. Clevenger, who is 82.
Ms. Clevenger made it clear that Upperline will not be included in her future plans. While the restaurant is officially for sale, the retirement of its founder, who embraced her hostess role as a higher calling, marks the end of an era for an establishment whose charisma reflected its owner’s.
“I found JoAnn to be an intoxicating character,” said Gabriel Stafford, 39, who worked at Upperline for 11 years. “I felt like I was ensconced in New Orleans-ness while working there.”
This restaurant was also one of a decreasing number of restaurants that championed a type of urban-rural cuisine that made New Orleans an internationally acclaimed culinary destination.
While Ms. Clevenger came up with dishes for Upperline’s traditional menu, including the fried green tomatoes topped with shrimp rémoulade that became a New Orleans staple, she was never the chef. Her three dining rooms were hers. Each room doubled as a gallery, with most of the artwork being by New Orleans artists. She acquired the collection when she had a very small gallery in the French Quarter in 1960.
“I did not sell one picture in three months, so I had to give it up,” she said.
Ms. Clevenger is coowner with Jason Clevenger (her son) and Alan Greenacre (her husband). They plan to sell the building and are open to selling the business, but only if Ms. Clevenger trusts that the buyer “will carry on what we built.” The art is also for sale.
Ms. Clevenger stopped by the portrait of a domestic worker in Upperline’s front dining room. Jean Flanigen had painted it. “Look at how beautiful she is,” Ms. Clevenger said of the portrait. “It demands respect.”
Upperline’s rear dining rooms were filled with late-afternoon light when Ms. Clevenger walked into them. She stopped to pose next to a Noel Rockmore portrait of Sister Gertrude Morgan (below, over Ms. Clevenger’s left shoulder), a preacher whose artwork was critically praised before her death in New Orleans in 1980. Rockmore, a revered New Orleans artist of his era, was a fixture in the French Quarter bohemian milieu that enchanted Ms. Clevenger when she was a young woman working in the neighborhood’s bars and restaurants.
“I knew Rockmore, but was afraid of him,” she said. “He was an intense womanizer. He drank a lot.”
Another nearby Rockmore portrait features the piano player Frank Moliere (below), who was known as Little Daddy — musicians were frequently featured in the artist’s work. It reminded Ms. Clevenger about the time Robert Plant, the lead singer of Led Zeppelin dined at Upperline.
“I’m not very up on popular music,” she said. “I didn’t know he was a really big deal.”
This was how Ms. Clevenger’s afternoon went. The art brought back memories of her French Quarter days as an adolescent 20-something from north Louisiana. These memories were connected to the more recent history at Upperline. One minute, she was recalling Typpa Hanush, a “quite spectacular woman” who sold turtle-liver pâté in the French Market and occasionally babysat for Ms. Clevenger’s children. She suddenly noticed the table in front of her and changed subjects.
“This is where Jeff Bezos sat,” she said. She recounted the night Mr. Bezos (Amazon founder and owner of The Washington Post) sat at a table with relatives of Dean Baquet (executive editor of The New York Times, a New Orleans native). “I gave them each a little note, telling them who was at the other table,” she said. “It’s about connections.”
She also gave a printed list of local bookstores she recommends to MacKenzie Scott, who was then Mr. Bezos’ wife. “It felt really good that I could give them a list of these brick-and-mortar stores he’s on the way to destroying.”
Ms. Clevenger was performing — as cultural ambassador, light gossip, amateur historian — in much the same way she did when Upperline was in full flower.
“She knew how to tie together great ingredients, both in her dishes and her dining room,” said Walter Isaacson, the author, Tulane University professor and New Orleans native.
She turned back to the front of the restaurant, passing a Joseph Ayers portrait of Ken Smith (above), the restaurant’s longest-serving chef, who left to become a Roman Catholic priest in 2010. She stopped in the center dining area (below), where she noticed its checkerboard flooring. A photo portrait of Jason Clevenger’s successor as chef, Tom Cowman, hangs in the center of a window. “Tom was really into books and art,” Ms. Clevenger said. “He taught me so much.”
Back in the restaurant’s front room, she picked up a framed copy (below left) of the menu from the night Upperline reopened after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Mr. Isaacson said that eating at the restaurant in the days after the storm was “where we regained our faith that the city would rebound.”
Ms. Clevenger explained that Upperline was able to keep it open for so long because of the gratitude she felt towards customers in those difficult times. “My family has been bugging me to retire for at least 10 years,” she said.
She explained what attracted her to hospitality when she worked on Bourbon Street in the 1960s and ’70s. “I remembered things about the customers and the bartenders and the other people that worked on the street,” she said. “And they loved that, and that made me feel good that I made them feel good. It’s a benevolent circle.”
Ms. Clevenger was back in those days just a few moments later as she added a narrative to a photo of Bourbon House (above), the French Quarter Bar where she met Tennessee Williams. “His cousin introduced us,” she said. “Her name was Stella.”
“Take a look at the pretty sky, JoAnn,” said Mr. Greenacre, who had wandered unnoticed into the restaurant.
Ms. Clevenger looked out the window and chuckled at the beauty of the setting sun before opening the shutters to take one last photo.
“Let’s capture it before it goes away,” she said.
Source: NY Times