On the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain, Covington, Louisiana is a charming town with a restaurant scene worth a detour
There’s something so very close to perfect about a breezy, off-hours drive across Lake Pontchartrain, particularly during one of those New Orleans evenings when the temperatures just won’t go down, when the night air hangs around like an unwanted blanket. Stick with the highway a little while longer, after your arrival on the North Shore, and you’ll find yourself at the heart of Covington, one of the most agreeable small cities in Louisiana, with a population of about 10,000 people and a selection of restaurants the envy of many a town five times the size.
A world away from New Orleans in many aspects, but on the culinary front, very much in tune with its world-famous neighbor on the other side of the water, Covington may not grab much attention from outside the region, but don’t be fooled—this town has it all, or at least very nearly. From their own outpost of Cafe du Monde, out along the highway, to a great local grocery store right downtown, known for their impressive wine and cheese selection (it's called Aquistapace’s, go there), to the local roster of chefs, plenty of them boasting rather impressive resumes, there's no going away hungry from Covington—that's just not happening. Once you get to town, here are just some of the highlights.
With all the goings on in New Orleans, the typical visitor will not have occasion to dine at one of the South’s finest Italian restaurants, helmed by David and Torre Solazzo, but that just leaves more room for the locals, who have been crushing on this sophisticated spot for years now. The veteran co-chefs (and partners in life) met on the job at Tra Vigne in the Napa Valley, got married in New Orleans, Torre’s hometown, and then—apparently—never got around to leaving. The restaurant, which back in 2002 introduced a whole new kind of cooking to a part of the world firmly loyal to the Creole-Italian way, has been a North Shore mainstay pretty much from day one.
Standing in the architecturally impressive courtyard of the Southern Hotel, an oasis of calm in the middle of an already rather mellow downtown Covington, it is difficult to imagine this century-old wellness retreat ever sat vacant, but it did—for the longest time, up until less than a decade ago, this proud old property was everything but a hotel, including nothing at all. That’s all in the past, happily—not only is the hotel back up and running, The Southern is also home to Jeffery and Amy Hansell’s elegant restaurant, with a smart Southern menu that’s never uptight—lead off, for example, with an order of the fried frog legs, served with pickled celery (delicious), hot sauce butter and a buttermilk dip.
The weekends-only dinners at this handsome spot inside Covington's historic train depot are definitely worth adding to your calendar, but for many, it’s Lola's excellent value lunches, served all week long, that make this well-established spot a downtown essential. From creative sandwiches and salads, to very good daily plate lunch specials—each one comes with a slice of Hummingbird cake for dessert—there’s plenty of choice; consider turning lunch into a whole thing with starters of deviled eggs, and pimento cheese served with pickles and crackers.
If you’ve been to Jazz Fest in New Orleans, chances are you’ve tried Gallagher’s crab cakes, or their relatively humble (but quite memorable) seafood casserole made with mirliton, which is what they call the chayote around here, and have done for the roughly 150 years the niche squash has been on the menu, here in Louisiana. For the rest of the year, Pat Gallagher is about the closest thing the North Shore has to a local celebrity chef, and his flagship spot, in an almost woodsy part of Covington, is the area’s most renowned steakhouse. You can’t go wrong with a giant bone-on ribeye, but start with the crab cakes, which have been referred to as some of the best on either side of the Causeway.
A match made in the Virgin Islands during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, where New Yorker Thomas LoPresti met Louisiana expat Christine Clouatre, resulted in one of Covington’s most popular restaurants to open in recent years, and not just for the Latin Caribbean-inspired menu, but also for the casual, family-friendly atmosphere, extending to a rather sizable backyard play area, which encourages hanging out (and running around). Generous lump crab cakes, a Cubano with house smoked pork, and the locally-favored Chisesi ham, plus plenty of good shrimp and catfish, bring people back again and again—same goes for the weekday blue plate specials.
Along with politics, and the merits of football teams that are not the New Orleans Saints, the subject of who makes the best po' boy would not be one for the visitor in this part of the world to take up lightly. If you ask North Shore people, however, or at least a great deal many of them, the answer to the question might very likely be Bear’s. There’s a reason why this modest setup, just a couple of blocks west of the town center, lists its roast beef po’ boy at the top of the menu, and that’s because it’s the absolute best thing they do—whether or not it’s the greatest in the world isn’t important; when it comes to Covington, and lunch time, you couldn’t be in a more correct spot. (Consider calling in your order, to avoid the inevitable wait.)