Tag Archives: Brigtsen’s Restaurant

Missing JoAnn

At this time of year, I frequently think of the Gulf region, where revelers from Mobile to New Orleans and beyond are celebrating the pre-Lenten festivities of Mardi Gras. When I think about New Orleans, I always think of Upperline, the Garden District restaurant that is the domain of JoAnn Clevenger.

I had heard about the charms of JoAnn and Upperline for years before I finally made my first reservation. When you called to make a reservation, JoAnn usually answered the phone. She would find out where you were visiting from, what brought you to New Orleans, if you had previously dined at Upperline, and where you were staying. I always had the sneaking suspicion that I was being pre-screened; if I was, I always made the cut.

On that first visit to the restaurant, I was visiting New Orleans in August (which some people would say is crazy to begin with, but I enjoy the city at all times of the year). I had an early reservation and had the bright idea to take the St. Charles streetcar up to the Garden District and walk around until the time of my reservation. It was a bright idea, but not a smart one on a sweltering August afternoon; within minutes, I was drenched in sweat and looking for a shady place to sit. The shade was no balm, however, from the oppressive heat.

Drained, and close to the restaurant, I decided to seek a merciful respite and went to the door of Upperline, where they were still preparing for dinner service. I told JoAnn that I had a reservation later (when they opened, actually) and asked if I could come inside until time for my meal. I probably looked pretty pathetic, and I was led to my table and asked what I would like to drink. “Ice water for now,” I said.

As I cooled down, I had the opportunity to observe JoAnn and the chef going over the evening’s menu. She would sample a dish thoughtfully and make her comments or suggestions. After a few minutes of this, the chef headed back to the kitchen and JoAnn took the helm at her station at the entrance.

I have always been interested in being privy to the details that go into the makings of an exceptional restaurant. One evening, dining at Brigtsen’s, another standout New Orleans eatery, I watched as chef Frank Brigtsen quietly walked through each dining room of the shotgun house that houses his eponymous eatery. After he had finished his walk-thru, he adjusted the volume of the music and headed back toward the kitchen. It is such attention to detail, I think, that distinguishes a great restaurant from a good one.

Back at Upperline, customers began to arrive and the restaurant came fully to life. The art-covered walls, curated by JoAnn, featured New Orleans scenes and New Orleans artists, and JoAnn circulated among her guests in what was, essentially, her own vibrant salon. When she came to my table, we chatted about Birmingham and she told how her menu’s “Hot & Hot Shrimp” was inspired by a visit to Birmingham’s award-winning Hot and Hot Fish Club. The meal was wonderful and, by the time I left, I had resolved to eat at Upperline whenever I was in New Orleans.

I kept my resolution, often taking friends there for their first time, and was never disappointed. Whenever one went to Upperline, JoAnn was always dressed in her signature black and red tunic. I learned somewhere along the way that she had eight of them in her closet. She always adorned it with her Girl Scout pin from her years growing up in rural Louisiana. She was fond of garlic and, in the summer months, a garlic-filled menu would be available. She admired Thomas Jefferson and the menu often featured dishes from Jefferson’s Monticello. A “Dorothy Parker” cocktail was garnished with three Red Hots. Dishes from Creole and Cajun Louisiana were always available, often with daring twists.

JoAnn Clevenger has been a finalist for the James Beard Award as “Restaurateur of the Year” on multiple occasions but has never won it. Anybody who ever dined in her restaurant would know that nobody deserves it more.

JoAnn has that very rare ability of seeming to remember you whether she really does or not. On my repeat visits, she always gave the impression that she recalled me from earlier visits. One time, after I had been away from New Orleans for a while, she said, “It’s been a while since I’ve seen you.” I replied that it had been three years. At the end of the evening, as I was going to my cab, she sidled up beside me. “Don’t wait three more years to come back,” she said with a wink. “If you do, I may not be here anymore.”

She was still there, greeting diners at the door, three years later. And three years after that. She was still making time to chat with each of her guests. The food was always superb, made moreso by the ambiance.

When the pandemic hit in 2020 and things began to shut down, the Upperline website announced that “Upperline is on pause and looking forward to reopening
as soon as it is safe for our beloved staff and guests.”

By November 2021, the pause was still in effect and JoAnn Clevenger, now in her 80s, announced that Upperline was closed permanently.

The pull of New Orleans has always been strong for me, and I’ve been away for too long. But now, with Upperline closed, the pull of the city is just a little less urgent.

Happy Mardi Gras. Pray for Ukraine.


“Magenta on White,” (oil on panel), Jared Small (2019)

I went to the Huntsville Museum of Art (www.hsvmuseum.org) for inspiration this week. That is always an iffy proposition since I tend to find the Huntsville Museum cold and sterile. I visited frequently when I first moved to Huntsville but, over the years, I just stopped out of apathy and frustration.

This week I was on a short break from work and I was at home for a few days and I woke up one morning determined to take a mini-vacation. The main incentive for choosing to spend some time at the Huntsville Museum was an exhibit in conjunction with Alabama’s 2019 bicentennial. “Our Shared Heritage: Alabama Artists from the Collection” is a two-part exhibit featuring Huntsville Museum holdings by artists from Alabama or with an Alabama connection.


“Celebrated Figure” sculptures by Clifton Pearson with 4 William Christenberry photographs on the wall behind.

The first part, which I missed, showcased Alabama artists from 1850 to 1940. The current companion exhibition features Alabama art from 1940 to the present. It’s a nice hit-and-miss exhibit, featuring artists I know and with whom I am familiar. Some of the most significant Alabama artists of the past 75 years are missing, but a number of notable artists are represented. So is the ubiquitous Mr. Nall. Among my personal favorites in the exhibit are a trio of the noble “Celebrated Figure” series by ceramic artist and sculptor Clifton Pearson and four classic photographs by William Christenberry.

As I walked through the bicentennial exhibition, I kept being distracted by the luminescence of oil paintings in a side gallery. It was an exhibit called “Encounters – Jared Small: Southern Moments in Time.” When I was finished with the Alabama exhibit, I ducked into the side gallery to see what that was about (www.davidluskgallery.com/artists/jared.small).

Small is a Memphis-based artist whose work seems to transverse reality with a painterly form of magical realism. At a glance, the paintings seem photorealist, but – upon closer examination – there always seems to be something else going on – color suddenly swooshes across the canvas, ethereal light emanates from an unseen source, flowers float and drip mysteriously.

In one of the narratives that accompanies the exhibit, Small talks about how his flower paintings were inspired by the flowers sent for his father’s funeral. He speaks of observing them closely, of noting the fleeting nature of the flowers that serve as tributes to those who have passed on.

Small’s subjects include portraits, vibrant still lifes, and even more vivid architecture. The architectural paintings were my favorite. In his own way, Small seems to be doing something similar to what Christenberry did – albeit in a different medium. Each artist takes places that are fading into memory and exalts what remains.

This technique is most potent for me in a couple of paintings of shotgun houses in the exhibit. There were other styles of architectural paintings in the show, but the shotgun is a style of Southern vernacular architecture that always speaks to me with its simplicity and functionality of design.

“Pink Roses” (oil and resin on paper), Jared Small (2018)

The standard for s shotgun house is three to four rooms lined up one after the other with no hallways. Typically, the front room is the living area, the central rooms are bedrooms, a bathroom is thrown in there somewhere, and the back room is a kitchen. Most agree that the structures were labelled as “shotgun houses” because you could shoot a shotgun through the front door and the shells would go straight through every room of the house, exiting through the back door. There are other etymologies, but that’s the one I prefer.

These old styles of vernacular architecture were used in the South before air conditioning was common and one of the best things about them was their ability to circulate air throughout the space. Having the front and back doors of a shotgun house open creates a natural cooling airflow throughout the residence. The “dogtrot,” one of my other favorite styles of historic domestic architecture, incorporates an open breezeway down the center of the house with rooms opening off either side of the breezeway. My Grandmother Harbison grew up in a dogtrot house in rural Cullman County; by the time I knew that house, at what was always referred to as the “old homeplace,” the dogtrot had been closed in. However, the idea of the dogtrot breezeway was still in effect whenever the front and back doors were open.

Shotguns seem more common to urban areas and dogtrots are often in rural settings. Both – whether urban or rural – were usually lifted a few feet off the ground, which gives the advantage of added airflow beneath the floors. A few years ago, when I was playing around with home designs and toying with the idea of building my own, I settled on a modified dogtrot with a loft on the public side.

The shotgun style is often considered low-income worker housing, and, indeed, many former factory towns and industrial cities had an abundance of the style. Many of those have gone away over time but the charm and practicality of the style seem to be receiving renewed appreciation.

“Shotgun Houses; Bessemer, Alabama,” Nick Gruenberg

One of my favorite photographs by photographer Nick Gruenberg (www.nickgruenberg.com) is a photo of a row of shotgun houses in Bessemer, a former industrial town a few miles southwest of Birmingham. Each house has been painted a vivid bright rainbow hue; collectively, they create a happy block among the houses of the community.

Shotgun houses are still abundant throughout New Orleans, in an abundance of uses. In the upscale Garden District, the immaculate Seven Sisters houses sit in a pretty row on Coliseum Street. Urban legend has it that the Seven Sisters were built by a father for his seven daughters, but the more prosaic version is that they were built as “spec houses.” Shotgun houses were ideal for urban areas since they were only one-room wide and fit comfortably on a narrow city lot. The “double-barrel shotgun,” even more space-efficient, was two individual shotgun houses that were duplex-joined.

New Orleans’s renowned Brigtsen’s restaurant, Frank and Marna Brigtsen’s Riverbend staple, is housed in a modified shotgun (www.brigtsens.com). Outstanding examples of shotgun houses still serve as residences throughout the French Quarter, Treme, and Marigny neighborhoods.

In my very favorite episode of the HGTV show, “Fixer Upper,” the last remaining shotgun house in Waco was moved to a new lot and turned into a dream home for a young couple. I would move into that house in a minute (except I wouldn’t move to Waco, so there’s that). However, watching that episode on several occasions, I notice that closet or storage space is never shown. That has always struck me as the major flaw in the 19th century shotgun – there never seem to be closets for modern residents.

As I was thinking about this essay, I heard a cut of music called “Sama” by the English ambient/electronic duo ISHQ. The sounds of ISHQ were fluid and dream-like and, since I already had Jared Small’s paintings in mind, seemed the perfect score for his vivid, evocative, and contemplative art.

Go into an art museum – any art museum, even one you don’t particularly like – for inspiration. You never know the unexpected places where it might lead.

“Shotgun House; French Quarter” (2007)

“Shotgun House; French Quarter,” (2007)