At Dooky Chase's Restaurant in New Orleans, Layers of History Run Deep
Leah Lange had let it be known that she didn’t much like to truck with musicians. Nonetheless, in 1945, she was swept away by Edgar Lawrence “Dooky” Chase Jr., a New Orleans jazz trumpeter, and had to shift ground on this score. The two met at a nightclub where Chase’s orchestra lit up the room. He’d somehow sailed past her defenses. Still in that whirlwind early the next year, they married.
Chase’s family owned a popular little spot in New Orleans’ Tremé neighborhood that served as a community hearth in one of the nation’s oldest African American communities. Established in 1939 and named after Edgar’s father, Edgar “Dooky” Sr., the business began as a street-corner stand selling po’boy sandwiches and lottery tickets. In 1941 the Chases moved across the street to the restaurant’s present location at Orleans Avenue and North Miro Street. Headquarters for key strategizing during the Civil Rights Movement, immortalized in song, this corner brick building with its two attached double shotgun houses has been a Tremé touchstone for five generations of New Orleanians.
Dooky Chase’s Restaurant has long been, and continues to be, a full-time family effort. In those early years, Leah Chase began helping out once her children were of school age. “I thought I was going to be the little hostess out front,” she told The New York Times in 1990. “But there was nobody cooking, so I landed in the kitchen.”
While she had waitressed in a French Quarter restaurant after arriving in New Orleans from Madisonville, Louisiana, she couldn’t have imagined this path for herself. But the act of tying up her apron and stepping behind the chopping board changed her life—and dramatically shaped the history of a neighborhood and beyond.
It was a trajectory that would have been impossible to predict, but the Chases trained their focus, investing in the day-to-day and the minute-to-minute.
While Chef Leah would go on to be recognized worldwide as the Queen of Creole Cuisine, her husband was regarded as a prominent restaurateur and New Orleans civic leader. He went door to door to encourage Black New Orleanians to vote and served as an active member of the musicians’ union, pressing for increased pay for local players. Edgar Jr. died in 2016. Leah followed just three years later, after overseeing her kitchen brigade well into her 90s. In their time together they’d built a singular sanctuary.
Over the decades, Dooky Chase’s has weathered inevitable cycles of change—caused by hurricanes, recessions, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Through it all, the family has relied on the community, much as the community has in turn relied on the warm glow, camaraderie, and nourishment the restaurant has provided.
In 2021, American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation chose Dooky Chase’s as one of 25 restaurants to receive a $40,000 Backing Historic Small Restaurants grant. The program, which is taking place again this year, assists small historic restaurants across the country with funding for improvements, upgrades, and preservation work.
Dooky Chase’s significance is indisputable, even beyond New Orleans. In May of last year, the Louisiana Office of Tourism unveiled a historical marker in front of the restaurant to honor its contributions to the state’s Civil Rights fight. It is one of 15 places that make up the new Louisiana Civil Rights Trail.
In their eight decades perched on this corner, the Chases have hosted dignitaries from around the globe, as well as a rotating roster of attorneys, writers, actors, professors, and musicians—all with a craving for homestyle fried chicken or a generous plate of red beans and rice. At the apex of the Civil Rights Movement, the dining rooms welcomed Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, James Meredith, and dozens of Freedom Riders. In a very specific way, Dooky Chase’s is a piece of cultural currency, a shared point of reference for Black Americans moving through the United States during the second wave of the Great Migration.
My family’s own ties to that neighborhood, and Dooky Chase’s, remain sturdy, the memories still sharp. No annual family trip to New Orleans was complete without a visit to Orleans Avenue and North Miro Street. My grandfather’s home was only a couple of blocks away; stepping over the restaurant’s threshold into the dining room and watching him catch up with Miss Leah and Dook (as Edgar Jr. was also known) felt like an extension of his own front room. I lived as much for eavesdropping on their spirited back-and-forth as I did for my fried oysters. This was our special event spot, my grandfather’s gift to our family.
My grandfather wasn’t just taking us to dinner. His overture grew out of his wish to celebrate the richness of both the neighborhood and the culture. For us, Dooky Chase’s felt simultaneously special and like home. When the senior Chases opened this location in 1941, it served a bitterly segregated city where Black patrons did not have a formal place to celebrate their notable occasions. Later, under Chef Leah and Edgar Jr.’s watch, the restaurant transformed once more, offering something unique to the Tremé neighborhood—white tablecloths and elevated style. “Leah Chase came from Madisonville, so she had the rural components of Creole cooking as part of her DNA,” says Lolis Eric Elie, a New Orleans–born, Los Angeles–based author, screenwriter, and essayist who has written extensively about New Orleans food and culture. “But her interest in fine dining, and her ambitions for her restaurant in that regard, meant that what she was doing stood out among other Black restaurants of the time.”
Stella Chase Reese, Leah and Edgar’s eldest living daughter, now runs the day-to-day operations alongside multiple generations of her family. She has been grateful for community support, local and far-flung, during a bewildering historical moment. In addition to trying to find a way forward as a restaurant during a pandemic, they have had the weight of an important legacy to protect.
It’s more than just a building they’ve been entrusted with, Reese knows. It is the place’s corresponding history, the conversations around Dooky Chase’s. “Those stories are what made us. These are the stories that have kept us here.”
This is why any change, says Reese, is carried out with an eye to the community’s evolving needs. “It’s difficult when we make these sacrifices to upgrade the buildings. Since we expanded in the 1980s, we have two double shotgun homes [as part of the restaurant]. And these homes, built years and years ago, are very expensive to keep up.” Small businesses have particular challenges, she notes. “And with a family business, money doesn’t come easily. You’ve got to work hard for it. So every time we do get it, over the years, we think of ways to improve, exterior and interior.”
While the family is still navigating the sharp switchbacks of the pandemic, government relief assistance and Small Business Association loans during waves of shutdowns have alleviated some of the stress. The Backing Historic Small Restaurants grant helped them tend to things they’d put on a wish list, such as pervious paving for an adjacent sidewalk to help with flooding; new flower beds; and an irrigation system. They also hope to renovate the upstairs dining room (known to many as “The Upper Room”) where so much of Dooky Chase’s significant Civil Rights history took place, but are still looking for funding for that.
“They always have the community in mind,” says Dana Nunez Brown, who heads Dana Brown & Associates (DBA), a landscape architecture firm that worked with the Chases on the sidewalk replacement project. “So while they wanted to replace the sidewalks because they were cracked or uneven, they also wanted to do stormwater management, to keep the water draining off the roof onto the sidewalks and parking lot from going into the storm drains and the pipes.”
Underneath the new pavers, Brown and her team set out a layer of coarse limestone to capture excess water until it can be absorbed into the ground. She says this is essential in New Orleans, which lacks bedrock under its street surfaces. “The limestone creates not just a structural base for the pavers to sit on; it has about a 30 to 35 percent void rate where water can go or be held.”
That phase, overseen by DBA senior associate Delaney McGuinness, was completed last year, and the team was mindful of the Chases’ concerns. “Part of their mission was certainly to reduce flood risk, but it was also to show people this is what you should be doing. Again, it’s emblematic of who they are and the love of their community,” says Brown.
Now, adds Reese, she and her family are working with DBA to create a “Legacy Walk,” which will feature engraved stone pavers honoring the many historic figures who have passed through Dooky Chase’s doors.
While this has been an uncertain stretch, Reese admits, she’s drawn mightily from ancestral fortitude. “This hasn’t been the first time we’ve been in crisis. And it won’t be the last.” Dooky Chase’s origin story, backdropped by the violence of the Jim Crow era, is entwined with Black New Orleans’ long fight for social justice. The Chases offered shelter, support, and nourishment in a decades-long storm.
“My grandmother Emily Tenette Chase was also a good cook, and also enjoyed entertaining people,” Reese remembers. Emily started off with a po’boy stand because it was something that felt attainable in a time when Black business owners were denied bank loans.
Saving her down-payment pennies, she eventually opened the po’boy shop on the 2200 block of Orleans Avenue. It immediately drew a loyal clientele. “Back in the day, [because] banks were not too friendly to Black folks, my grandmother also began cashing checks for people who worked on the river—the longshoremen and others. As a young girl, I remember the lines for people to cash their paycheck.” While Reese’s grandmother offered the service to assist neighborhood families, she was also a wise businessperson: “Of course when people would cash their checks, they would buy food. They would sit at the bar. They would bring food home for their family. It was payday. You know? It was a good thing all around.”
As the business bloomed, her grandmother’s dreams grew, and in short order a larger spot across the street— 2301 Orleans Avenue—looked as if it might be able to accommodate them. This time her grandmother secured a loan from a vendor who had confidence in her business acumen. "I think it was all of $600 at the time," says Reese. For a short while, the family lived in one part of the building and opened the other side for business.
“How do we learn to live together without having a conversation? Without meeting each other? That’s the best way to meet and have a conversation. Over food.”Stella Chase Reese
In a critical historical moment, Dooky Chase’s functioned as a de facto Civil Rights headquarters. In addition to being used for celebrations, The Upper Room was where the architects of the movement wrestled with the challenges before them. “A lot of people strategized [about] what steps we had to do to make things right for African Americans, to have our community respected and to do what we’re all trying to aim for—social justice for all,” Reese says.
Jim Crow laws explicitly restricted race mixing in public spaces, and flouting those codes could trigger deadly consequences. But over the restaurant’s threshold those lines tacitly dissolved. The fruits of these meetings—voting-campaign strategies, ideas on how to sharpen political platforms—came from people discussing provocative issues face to face, across race lines. “How do we learn to live together without having a conversation? Without meeting each other?” asks Reese. “That’s the best way to meet and have a conversation. Over food.”
Much of that conversation reverberated and spilled over beyond the walls of the restaurant. Change was on many people’s minds and lips in Tremé and beyond: “We were all trying to find ways to improve our community, ways in which African Americans could be more involved in the government and in other jobs,” Reese says. “They were looking at ways to support, not just with words and thoughts, but with money. We all had to pool our money to support these issues, and that’s what we did. And it started in that Upper Room.”
While upstairs operated as a command post, downstairs was a safe harbor for Black people traveling across an inhospitable country. “Dooky, Cor. Orleans & Miro” was listed as a safe spot in The Negro Motorist Green Book. Dooky Chase’s convivial bar and sit-down dining room functioned as an oasis. “In 1941, as a Black person, it didn’t matter who you were,” says Reese. “You could be Nat King Cole, you could be Lena Horne, and you could be Muhammad Ali, Duke Ellington. You could perform and entertain people of other races, but you could not eat where they ate. So Dooky Chase’s was the place that they came.”
As “thank yous” go, one of the most exceptional ones arrived by way of singer-songwriter Ray Charles, who tended to slide by the bar late nights post-gig when he was touring. “My father, being a musician himself, used to always entertain him. They’d sing songs and tell stories and have a great time. And so one night Ray Charles told my father, ‘You know, I really like this place and I like you so much that next time I write a song, you’re going to be in it!’ And I tell people, it wasn’t his most popular song, but if you Google ‘Early in the Morning,’ you’ll find us.”
Customers drifted through, searching for the feel of home away from home, the easy rapport topped off with Chef Leah’s specialties. She paid close attention to every detail. And, quite famously, ran a tight ship—back and front of house—which was part of the allure and lore as well.
Blues musician Taj Mahal recalls, as if yesterday, a visit: “Must have been ’68, ’69. I’m down in New Orleans and I’m dressed! I’ve got my cowboy boots, navy bell bottoms, big ol’ belt buckle. Blue cowboy shirt. Red handkerchief around my neck. Fringed jacket. Chocolate cowboy hat, round glasses. I’m going into Dooky Chase’s. I get to the door, open it up, and one of the waitresses is looking at me and going, ‘Nuh uh. You got them dungarees on. She’s strict.’ She told me, ‘And you don’t be wearing no hats in her place. No, no, no, no, no,’” he replays the scene.
Bottom line, they let it be known: You don’t walk into Miss Leah’s place any which way.
“But you know what? It endeared her to me. We became the best of friends and soon, anytime I was in town and she was in the kitchen, I would say, ‘Tell them I say Taj Mahal is out here.’ And sure enough, after a fashion, she’d come out, sit down and talk.” It’s always on the itinerary, even 50 years later: “Not just the food but everything you need to put in you to keep going.”
My grandfather’s been gone longer than feels possible, but I keep his ritual. I even hear the restaurant’s name in his voice, in the lacework of his New Orleans accent, every time I approach Orleans and North Miro. With each passing year, I’ve come to realize, so many of us who have made that pilgrimage have hungered for not just the satisfying meal that Chef Leah prepared for us, but a sense of pride of place.
“As people began to think about regional specificity as a badge of honor, we began to embrace those things more fully,” notes Elie. “People like Leah Chase and restaurants like Dooky Chase’s were important as symbols of who we are, and why we, as New Orleanians, are different from the rest of the country—and, indeed, from the rest of the world.”
Says Reese, “When we were given the opportunity [decades ago] to move outside the community, my father said, ‘No. This is for me. This is where we will continue. We will continue to be a cornerstone.’” It’s an oath that echoes. During the early stages of the pandemic, reporters came around gathering color and quotes, asking, “What will you do if you can’t go on?” Reese was having none of it: “We are here.” Through all of it, she says, “We’ve tried to keep it just the way [our parents] wanted. We’ve always thought of it as if we are opening the doors to our home. And now we say that to our younger ones: ‘We are the family who were given the keys, but we hold the keys to what belongs to our community.’”
When Leah Chase tied up her apron strings to “help out” in the kitchen she had no idea how dramatic an impact a welcome table and a warm meal might have on the world.
It became a calling.
A sharp rerouting of her own life plans was a surprise to Reese as well. “I remember my grandmother saying to me, ‘You know you’re not going to do the restaurant business.’ And I said, ‘No, maman, I’m not.’ She said, ‘You too cute?’ But really I wondered [if] I might be too lazy. Instead I just said, ‘No, that’s not it.’”
Truth told, for years she’d watched her parents work faithfully in service of the restaurant and of the community. It was a 24-7 dedication. “After Katrina I thought, ‘Well, maybe my parents will rest.’ At that time, they were in their early 80s, late 70s. And they were still working so hard. But they said, ‘We can’t close because it’s not about us.’ It was about everybody. We’re keeping this open for everybody.”
Though the last couple years have tested her, she’s felt something akin to what her parents carried, the duty within the struggle. In the morning, as she’s revisiting to-do lists in her mind, moving through the scents and sounds of the restaurant readying for its day, she always makes sure to pause: “There’s a picture of my grandparents in the foyer. When I go to open the door, I look up at it and think, ‘Yes, I know you’re laughing at me.’ I was the one that never thought I’d be in it. But you know, it becomes part of you.”
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