Li’l Dizzy’s is back as next generation revives a Treme restaurant and a family legacy

It looked like the end of the Baquet family restaurant legacy in New Orleans when Wayne Baquet retired and closed Li’l Dizzy’s. But now his son, Wayne Jr., and his wife Arkesha Baquet are taking the reins, photographed Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021. (Photo by David Grunfeld, | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

First they made a roux, the way they always have, for a Creole gumbo that’s been a signature dish for generations.

Then the next generation of the Baquet family opened the doors again at Li’l Dizzy’s Café, bringing back an essential piece of the New Orleans culinary story that was almost lost in the pandemic.

Li’l Dizzy’s reopened at its longtime home, 1500 Esplanade Ave., on Monday. To begin, the restaurant serves lunch only, with all meals prepared for takeout. Limited seating is available inside and outdoors for people who want to unpack their lunch on the spot.

The restaurant is starting with a menu of house standards, including that Creole gumbo and fried chicken, and has daily specials, from Monday red beans and rice to smothered pork chops on Saturday.

“We’re bringing back what we’re known for. We want people to know the food will be the same,” said Arkesha Baquet, the restaurant’s new co-owner.

The restaurant is opening in progressive phases, with table service and an expanded menu still to come. But just firing up the Li’l Dizzy’s kitchen again is a significant milestone.

Arkesha and her husband Wayne Baquet Jr. bought the restaurantlate last year from founders Janet and Wayne Baquet Sr., who are Wayne Jr.’s parents. It was a transfer through family lines that none of them had foreseen just a few months earlier.

Li’l Dizzy’s Cafe (1500 Esplanade Ave., 504-766-8687) is back open as of Feb. 16, with the next generation of the Baquet family at the helm. It’s takeout only to begin, with a menu that of course starts with its Creole gumbo.

Li’l Dizzy’s has been a Treme mainstay since 2005, serving as a neighborhood restaurant for people from all corners of the community. Weekly regulars, homesick New Orleans expats, preachers and police brass and well-informed tourists would all pack the snug dining room, digging in to gumbo and stuffed peppers and red beans and buttery trout Baquet.

The business also represents the latest chapter for one of the longest-running Black family restaurant legacies in New Orleans.

People have been eating traditional Creole cuisine at a succession of different Baquet family restaurants across the city since the 1940s. From Paul Gross Chicken Coop on Bienville Street to Eddie’s on Law Street to Zachary’s on Oak Street, it’s been a tale of family, hospitality and local flavor.

Do you remember Eddie's? A lost New Orleans restaurant
Wayne Sr. (left), Eddie Sr. (center) and Janet Baquet at their second location on the 2nd floor of the Krauss Company in this 1991 photo. (Photo by Norman J. Berteaux, | The Times-Picayune archive)

Wayne Baquet Sr. was the steward of that legacy for many years. But after the pandemic arrived, it looked like Li’l Dizzy’s was done. The restaurant closed in March and remained shuttered through the various phases and surges that followed. At 73, Baquet Sr. considered the health risks of the pandemic too great to reopen the restaurant himself. He spoke with potential buyers throughout the summer and fall but never arrived at a deal. All the while, concern in the community stirred for the restaurant’s future.

Though raised in their family’s restaurants, Janet and Wayne Baquet’s children pursued different careers. There was no succession plan for them to take over the restaurant business. (Wayne Baquet Jr. is CEO of Imperial Trading, the grocery distributor owned by John Georges, who also owns The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate.).

When Baquet Sr. finally confirmed last fall that the restaurant was permanently closed, an outpouring of gratitude and grief from the Baquet family’s wide circle of friends and supporters cracked open a new opportunity.

“After that story, that’s when the floodgates opened,” said Wayne Baquet Jr. in an earlier interview. “We heard from so many people. That’s when it really hit us. That’s when we had to ask ourselves, is this really the way we want the family’s story to end? We couldn’t let it go.”

While Li’l Dizzy’s reopens in stages, it’s starting with a crew of longtime employees the Baquets have been able to hire back, and recipes with long roots in their own family. Even the restaurant’s name carries a deeply intimate connection. Wayne Baquet Jr.’s son Zachary earned the nickname Li’l Dizzy for his chops on the trumpet back in his St. Augustine High School band days, riffing of course on jazz great Dizzy Gillespie. His proud grandfather named the restaurant in his honor.

As the menu gradually expands, the new operators plan to bring back dishes from the family’s restaurant past, reviving Creole classics for the restaurant menu.

Li’l Dizzy’s has been a longtime food vendor at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. The new owners plan to resume that role when Jazz Fest returns, now slated for next fall.

Wayne Baquet Sr. has been helping with the business transition, advising in the kitchen, and also learning how to change his own pace now that he’s officially retired from his restaurant career.

“I have to keep telling myself, almost every day, you really don’t have to get up this early, it’s all right, you can relax,” he said. “That does not come natural though.”

Li’l Dizzy’s Cafe

1500 Esplanade Ave., (504) 766-8687

Initial hours Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-3 p.m.