Friday, October 16, 2009
"we ain't got no cornbread, so don't be asking 'bout no cornbread," our waitress announced as she threw down a grease smeared handwritten menu. she sashayed off. marie & i were desperately hungover & this woman had towered intimidatingly over our table briefly. "let's not order cornbread," marie reasonably whispered across the table. i needed to focus. no one in the past had articulated menu options quite as forcefully as our current waitress. deep down, i felt like i needed to take her suggestion seriously.
i'd come to busters for the first time in 1978 w/the shit-ass willard. the restaurant was in a faded grayish-looking pink building on a corner on burgundy street in the french quarter. there was a single entrance, a screen door so caked w/grease you couldn't see through it. once you summoned the nerve to walk through that door, you walked into a relatively clean single room w/ a black & white linoleum tile floor. to the middle left, upon entering, was a bar-like structure but buster's didn't serve alcohol. i don't remember there being any stools there. to the hard left seemed to be another room but one not so accomodating as the main dining area. i'd say there were maybe 20 tables set up in it. at the far end was a juke box. i recall mirrors & also that the place was better lit than i'd imagined it could be judging from the outside. that first time w/ed, a different woman threw a different ink & grease stained menu on our table. she hadn't been quite so menacing.
that first meal at buster's had been incredible & incredibly cheap. tho we didn't apparently qualify as starving french quarter artists(it was rumored that the waitresses had the power to decide the amount you were charged depending on their knowledge of you & how destitute you appeared), the meal was still astonishingly cheap. a platter full of red beans & rice w/a garlicky fried pork chop was under four bucks. a plate of fried chicken, all garlicky & crispy delicious, was somewhere around the same. i remember willard triumphantly mopping up red bean gravy w/cornbread, grinning that huge cheshire cat grin of his.
over the years, buster's was always solid. the food was always good & the prices were always amazing when you considered what you were getting on your plate. after a few times, i'd gotten my courage up & gone over to that juke box. there i found singles by the meters, professor longhair, fats, huey smith, earl king, & mac rebannack jr. all on 45s. eventually, i got the nerve up to put money in the machine & play those songs. listening to fess sing tipitina on the jukebox while eating a plate of red beans in buster holmes' restaurant was absolute heaven for me.
that particular day w/marie was one of those unforgettable new orleans moments. when our waitress returned she reiterated her position about the cornbread. "i done told you about the cornbread so don't be asking me for no cornbread." we hadn't asked about the cornbread. i will say that whoever came in, black or white, got the same treatment. i remember a black woman coming in & being harrangued by our waitress. she protested a bit & sulked over by the juke box. from that vantage point, she could actually see into the kitchen. marie & i had drifted off into our own little non-cornbread worlds. i was vaguely aware of the woman's agitation but wasn't prepared for it's outcome. suddenly & w/o warning, the woman jumped up as quickly as a cat, screaming "i see that cornbread, you lying bout that cornbread, i sees it in there" as she burst through the kitchen doors. there was more screaming from inside the kitchen, issuing from several voices at this point. it was somewhat muffled but there was the accusatory assailant's voice & other surprised voices from the kitchen help. suddenly, just as quickly the woman emerged from the kitchen clutching several hunks of the coveted cornbread in what appeared to be palsied hands. she sat back down at her table. no one approached her. she held onto the cornbread, staring down at it & then, briefly, looking wildly around the room w/a triumphant look on her face. finally, the waitress brought her the takeout she'd been waiting for & she paid & left. marie was visibly shaken. i probably was too. i'd been expecting the kind of sudden bloody violence we all expect to rain down upon us when we're way out of our comfort zone. instead, the waitress brought our lunches. there was also a small plate of cornbread.
buster's was only open a few more years at the burgundy street location. buster retired & sold the place & the "concept" of the place to someone else. they opened a "fast food" version in the newly renovated jax brewery building down on decatur st near cafe du monde. it lasted a couple of years.
i never made it to eddie's, the next legendary soul food mecca. the praline connection in the marigny & lil' dizzys(run by the baquet family of eddie's fame)are doing the kind of food buster was doing way back when. for me, they don't quite match buster's food & i know they'll never match buster's ambiance.
one of the great memorials to buster is here.