The white SUV pulled around the corner of Annunciation and Bellecastle streets and three generations of Domilise’s po-boy eaters gazed out, looking for signs of life. At last, this week their cravings were answered.
Domilise’s Po-boys & Bar is a low-key landmark of New Orleans food culture with a century of history. It began a new chapter when it started serving po-boys again after shutting down early in the coronavirus response.
That meant Emma Scheuermann, who was driving with nephew Tyler and their family friend Claire Pelleteri, could finally reconnect with her old favorite. They were headed to Audubon Park to eat po-boys and watch ships pass on the river.
“We’ve been trying to stay in as much as possible, but this is what we need right now,” Scheuermann said.
Pelleteri is 90. She figures she’s been eating Domilise’s po-boys for 80 of those years, ever since her parents let her walk there by herself. This time she sat in the backseat, sipping a Barq’s long neck while Tyler rounded up the order. She could practically taste the oyster po-boy she was waiting on.
“That’s erster, not oyster,” Pelleteri specified
Domilise’s is as New Orleans as it gets. Right now, like all of New Orleans, it is adjusting to everyday life on different terms, trying to keep safe while carrying on.
Under Phase 1 reopening rules, restaurants are allowed to operate dining rooms at 25% occupancy. In the tight confines of Domilise’s that would translate to a pair of tables.
So for now, takeout is the only option, even though to manager Joann Domilise that still feels strange. She’s used to seeing the place full of people, a jumble of elbow-to-elbow eating and drinking, gabbing and laughing.
“Takeout is easy for po-boys, but we always encouraged people to sit down and enjoy the whole experience,” Domilise said. “My daughter says I’m just really picky. She says ‘Mom, people are used to takeout and don’t mind it.’ But to me it’s just not the same.”
To get the old place going again, Domilise’s is serving a bare-bones takeout menu at lunchtime only. There’s fried oyster, fried shrimp, hot smoked sausage po-boys and French fries. As always, they’re dressed with pickles, lettuce, mayo, hot sauce and ketchup (not tomato).
Roast beef po-boys, always a mainstay, are now a special based on availability. That’s another sign of the pandemic’s ripples. Certain types of beef, including the round steak Domilise’s uses, have grown scarce and drastically more expensive due to disruptions far up the supply chain.
With restaurants now tapping an arsenal of electronic tools to conduct business with minimal contact, the protocols at Domilise’s boil down to two doors and lots of hollering between them.
Customers order at the side door (or call in their orders in advance), then collect their bagged po-boys from the front door, right next to the counter where the French bread loaves are sliced, dressed and filled. There’s hand sanitizer next to the stash of Zapp’s chips and everyone inside wears a mask.
That includes the one with a sno-ball pattern Domilise herself wears, which covers her smile but cannot disguise her joy when familiar faces approach the door.
Though low tech, all the safety measures came after Domilise researched best practices before reopening.
“I spent weeks watching every webinar I could find, calling the restaurant association constantly,” she said. “We have to do everything we can to keep everyone safe. We can’t go through what we went through before.”
Domilise’s has already weathered a lot of history and change.
It sits a few blocks from the cranes and silos of the riverfront, whose dockworkers were its first customers back in the day. Pete Domilise started the business as a bar around 1918. It was a stand-up bar, with no seats. People sidled up for beers, elbows hitched on the smooth wooden counter. His wife Sophie started making plate lunches and sometime later friends of the family set up a little counter to sell po-boys, and that remains the basic layout here today.
The founder’s son Sam and his wife Dot took over. Eventually the old barroom because synonymous with po-boys, and with Dot Domilise herself. After Sam died in 1981 she kept working daily at the po-boy shop, where she also lived in an apartment connected to the dining room. She died in 2013 at 90.
The restaurant’s rhythms and flavors carry through other families now too.
On Thursday afternoon Edward Poitevent trekked from the Lower Garden District to get his favorite po-boy, washing it down with a Barq’s, a pairing as intuitive at Domilise’s as filet mignon and cabernet at a steakhouse. Now he could report some good news to his kids, all grown and living in other cities.
“Whenever they come home to visit they beeline here,” he said.
Joann Domilise is eager for day when she can fill her po-boy shop with customers again. For now, she and her crew are connecting as best they can. After dressing the po-boys and wrapping them in butcher paper, they slide notes into the takeout bags. They’re printed with a hand drawn heart and the message “thanks for your support.”
“We’re trying to get back to ourselves, but we’re just not all the way there right now,” Domilise said. “I just can’t wait to get a hug.”
5240 Annunciation St., 504-899-9126
Open Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-3 p.m., hours and menu to expand