Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Irene's: Worth the Wait?

When is a reservation not really a reservation? When it's made at Irene's.

Notorious for its long wait and beloved for its charming interior, Irene's is perhaps the most popular secret in the French Quarter. While reservations can be had, most diners endure an extended pre-dinner cocktail hour in the makeshift piano bar before being ushered to a table in one of the dimly lit, cramped dining rooms for a dinner of Creole-Italian favorites.

And while many complain about the wait, we all must admit that dinner at Irene's would not be the same without it.

In my opinion, Irene's is one of many New Orleans restaurants where the experience outshines the food. You enter on St. Philip Street and walk through the end of the two dining rooms to the maitre'd station and waiting room, whose walls are lined with framed media accolades. Find yourself a candlelit table, order a martini, and settle in while you listen to the piano and for your name to be called.

When you eventually make into the dining room, the server will likely present you with an order of bruschetta "compliments of Irene." If this course were not gratis, I would point out that the bread was soggy from sitting out underneath a fresh slice of oven-warmed tomato. Plus, why be the buzzkill at a table where everyone was enjoying themselves enough not to notice the food?

The bruschetta is an example of the quality of the food as a whole - everyone's favorite dishes executed in an average manner. The menu is a hybrid of Creole fare and Italian standbys, with affordable prices in the high teens. Softshell crab and oysters are crowd favorites, the latter of which are baked till a brown crust of Romano cheese protects a dice of bacon flavoring the plump bivalve underneath. These Oysters Irene are an absolute bargain at $8.95 for a half dozen and the best choice on the menu.

Entrees run the gamut from fish amandine to roasted duck to mussels with linguine in a thin sauce. The canneloni is stuffed with veal, spinach, ricotta, and terribly undercooked eggplant which brought the whole dish down. The house tomato sauce is smooth and just barely sweetened. There is also a deliciously tender ribeye (bistecca fiorentina) served with not more than a spoonful of potato gratin.

Even if you choose to forego dessert, you may be brought one anyway. And thank your lucky stars if it's the tiramisu, which is light in texture but dynamite in flavor.

There are restaurants which, despite serving middle-of-the-road food, remain popular simply because they execute the intangibles well enough to create an enjoyable dining experience. While the food may not represent the pinnacle of Creole-Italian cuisine, Irene's almost always succeeds in sending its patrons out the door in a better mood than they were when they entered.

The difficult part is convincing diners to wait long enough to get to that point.

Irene's - Par
539 St. Philip
Dinner Mon-Sat


Anonymous said...

I rate Irene's as one of my top three Italian restaurants (foodwise) in the city. I guess our experiences have been different, particularly because I never really considered Irene's as a place with atmosphere so good you go even if the food may be average. That distinction goes solely to downstairs at Galatoires.

Anonymous said...

In many ways Irene's reminds me a bit of Mandich's.

Peter said...

Anon #1,

I'm curious as to where places like Italian Barrel and Domenica versus Venezia and Tony Angelo's fall on your Italian spectrum. Maybe I have simply lost my taste for Creole-Italian, which is a matter of personal preference as opposed to qualitative analysis. Regardless, save for the Oysters Irene, the food just did not have a lustiness that I expected, and the flavors overall were fairly muted.

As for the atmosphere, I really enjoyed the cozy dining room and welcoming service, but to each his own on whether that makes the food worthwhile.

Anon #2,

I have heard that comparison before but never dined at Mandich often (or recent) enough to understand the similarities. Care to explain?

Anonymous said...


I'd happy to elaborate. I think the biggest similarity is that both venues benefit/benefited from a devoted following. And both are a testament to the role that familiarity plays for many people in deciding where to go. Like Irene's, Mandich's had good not great food. The menus was/is an absolute constant at both places. My guess is that most people ordered the same thing night after night. My favorite indulgence was to get a side of hollandaise with my fries. Really, Mandich's was populated largely by former denizens of the Upper Ninth Ward who had made the move to Metairie in the 60's and 70's, which basically led to its demise, I think its clientele just got old. (That and a few feet water I believe, although I am not positive that it flooded.) It was almost a club really, and patrons would always linger in the bar and socialize before sitting down to eat.


Anonymous said...

You nailed it. Not a fan in general of long waits for dinner, but the Oysters Irene are spectacular.

kibbles said...

i do agree that the consistency at irene's is unrivaled -- the same dishes executed exactly as they were the last time you had them. this is pretty remarkable in itself.

and i agree the food is good, not great-amazing.

and that the service is great and makes you feel like somebody special (and that they like their job; something to be said for this).

but -- there are still some pretty damn good dishes. their version of trout amandine w/ haricots vert & souffle sweet potatoes is without a doubt my favorite anywhere. and the crispy duck, where the fat has been rendered into flavor-love and the skin crisped just right, w/ grapes and apples.. man, good stuff.

and creole cream cheese cake ftw.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's worth the wait, mediocre American Italian influenced food..........

Anonymous said...

creole-italian, actually. most dont realize it but new orleans has an old history of italian cuisine and like the many other national influences in this city they have their own variations and fusions that are indigenous to this region.

that being said, if youre going solely for the food then youre missing half the experience.

Anonymous said...

You don't have to wait if you "know someone."