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.