Next generation to reopen Li’l Dizzy’s, reviving New Orleans restaurant legacy

Next generation to reopen Li’l Dizzy’s, reviving New Orleans restaurant legacy

As late as November, 73-year history seemed about to end

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)

When Wayne Baquet Sr. decided last fall to retire, he knew he was closing the book on both a career and a long family narrative in Creole food in New Orleans. But he also left the door open for his last restaurant, Li’l Dizzy’s Café, to return with new owners.

Now the people who walked through that door are not only out to reopen the restaurant but also revive the Baquet family story. Baquet and his wife, Janet, have sold Li’l Dizzy’s to their son, Wayne Baquet Jr., and their daughter-in-law, Arkesha Baquet. The couple expect to begin a gradual return to business in late January, starting with takeout and catering.

On Saturday, they met at the Tremé restaurant to discuss their plans. Baquet Sr. said he will remain retired as he intended, while the next generation steps up to continue the family business.

“It means we’re able to continue his legacy, to carry it on so that our children will be part of that legacy, too. That’s why it means so much to us,” said Arkesha Baquet, reaching out to grasp her father-in-law’s hand as tears welled in the eyes of both.

‘The floodgates opened’

This is a development none of the Baquets had foreseen as late as November, when Baquet confirmed he would not reopen the restaurant and was seeking a buyer to take over the business. 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.).

Li’l Dizzy’s Cafe in Treme has been closed since March during the pandemic. It’s the last of a long line of Creole restaurants from the Baquet family.

News of the restaurant’s closing brought an outpouring of gratitude for all the memories through the years, but also grief. It was not just the loss of another restaurant in a year that has claimed many but also the end of a family tradition in New Orleans hospitality, one that dates from the 1940s and stands as one of the city’s longest-running Black business legacies.

“After that story, that’s when the floodgates opened,” said Wayne Baquet Jr. “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.”

Li’l Dizzy’s has been closed since the pandemic struck in March. Baquet Sr. kept the kitchen going with some contract work for community feeding efforts, but when those jobs were fulfilled he said it was time to move on. At 73, he 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.

Wayne Baquet takes a look around his restaurant Li’l Dizzy’s Cafe on Esplanade Avenue in New Orleans. He has decided to retire and close the restaurant. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

Arkesha Baquet has been helping her father-in-law with sales of his family cookbook and packaged gumbo seasoning. The messages from longtime customers that accompanied some of incoming orders reaffirmed just how much the restaurant and the Baquet family’s story meant to people.

“It was around this time I had an emotional moment. My husband had his emotional moment, too,” she said. “We looked at each other and knew what we should do. We met with my in-laws after that and started talking about how we could do it.”

Generations of Creole flavor

Wayne Baquet Sr.’s great aunt, Ada Baquet Gross, opened the family’s first restaurant in 1947. That was Paul Gross Chicken Coop at Bienville and North Roman streets, a 24-hour operation with fried chicken cooked in cast iron skillets, the rare amenity of air conditioning and, during segregation, something rarer still: a restaurant run by Black people and open to Black customers.

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Eddie Baquet Sr. stands in front of his restaurant Eddie’s on Law Street in 1991.

The next generation was led by Wayne Baquet’s father, Edward Baquet. He left his job at the U.S. Postal Service, sold his home and drew on his pension to buy a neighborhood bar on Law Street, tucked away off Elysian Fields Avenue. This became Eddie’s, which from its start in 1966 would eventually earn wide renown for its Creole food.

More iterations of Eddie’s would follow, including locations in the Krauss Department Store on Canal Street and the Lake Forest Plaza mall in New Orleans East. Through the years, the family would develop Eddie Baquet’s Restaurant on North Claiborne Avenue, Café Baquet on Washington Avenue and Zachary’s on Oak Street.

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From the archive, original caption: “Edward Baquet Sr and his sons Edward Jr. and Wayne (left) run one of the most gifted Creole kitchens in town, and some of the best New Orleans dishes are served in breathtaking versions. Eddie’s gumbo is brilliant, its fried chicken excellent and its bread pudding lavish.”

Wayne Baquet Sr. opened Li’l Dizzy’s in 2005. The name is a nickname his grandson, Zachary, earned for his chops on trumpet during his days with the St. Augustine High School band. Zachary, now 29 and living in Houston, is Wayne Jr.’s son, which stitches another connection between the restaurant and its new owners.

Memorabilia on the walls inside Li’l Dizzy’s Cafe in New Orleans on Tuesday, November 10, 2020. Owner Wayne Baquet has announced plans to retire and close the restaurant. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

Like her husband, Arkesha Baquet is a New Orleans native. She’s worked in business administration and as an educator for special needs students. She also managed an earlier incarnation of Li’l Dizzy’s, a spinoff the family that opened in the Whitney Hotel in the Central Business District years ago but that later closed when its lease ended. She has now stepped into a main management role for Li’l Dizzy’s.

“The love and respect I have for my in-laws, the passion I’ve seen firsthand in my father-in-law, that gives me what I need to know we can do this,” she said.

She’s working with a small crew of Li’l Dizzy’s staff now, people who have been part of the restaurant for many years.

“The people we’re working with want Li’l Dizzy’s back as much as we do, and that means a lot,” she said.

The restaurant will begin serving signature dishes such as Creole gumbo, fried chicken, red beans and trout Baquet for takeout. Arkesha Baquet said they plan to expand service as New Orleans’ coronavirus safety protocols dictate, eventually returning to full service.

Li'l Dizzy's fried chicken
Fried chicken from Li’l Dizzy’s Cafe on Esplanade Ave. in New Orleans, La. Wednesday, March 28, 2018. (Photo by David Grunfeld, | The Times-Picayune)

This will be a time to recalibrate the menu. Li’l Dizzy’s was best known for the buffet it served at lunch next to its à la carte menu. With buffets prohibited under current safety rules, Baquet Jr. said they plan to reach deeper into the family’s restaurant past to bring back more dishes. Hot sausage po-boys will be one specialty, for instance.

“There’s a lot of dishes we’ve done as a family over the years that have been put on the shelf. We can dip back into those,” he said.

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.