Over the last two years, Chef Isaac Toups, Rue 127's Chef Ray Gruezke, and Chef Chris DeBarr have decided to stake a claim in Mid City. T. Cole Newton opened his fancy-drink speakeasy on Telemachus in 2010, and the new healthcare behemoth slowly rearing its head along Tulane Ave. is already attracting eateries like Pizzicare and the latest in cocktail lounging, Trèo. Perhaps nowhere is the diversity and creativity of Mid City's recent business surge more readily apparent than between the 4600 and 4300 blocks of Banks Street, which, if a zombie apocalypse were to break out tomorrow, could wall itself in and continue to be a self-sustaining community. The block has a dinner and lunch spot in Crescent Pie & Sausage, a auto repair shop, a barbershop, a watering hole in Banks Street Bar, and a pizza joint in Lazaro's. Bookending this tiny, oak-shaded cross-section of civilization are two recent additions that fill out the neighborhood's roster of places to nom: poetry nexus Special Tea Cafe and vanquisher of hangovers, Wakin' Bakin'.
Conrad Chura, who owns and operates Wakin' Bakin' alongside fellow egg scrambler and Olive Branch vet Zak Pizzeck, is so encouraged by the neighborhood's robust offerings, that he's recently batted around the idea of throwing a block party with fellow Bank Streeters. "We were talking about actually trying to organize a little block party," he says, waving towards the curb, "where you could come here and just sort of spend a day. Starting, of course, with Wakin' Bakin'."
"Something like the [Oak Street] Po-boy Festival," adds Pizzeck, "something that would draw attention to this community. 'Cause, I mean, since we've moved in, I've seen a lot of foot traffic, whether it's people hanging out at Banks Street Bar or Metairie moms coming to drop their kids off at Jesuit. It's just a lot of diverse people."
Lionel King, proprietor of Special Tea Cafe at the other end of the Banks Street business row, has also noticed the increase in activity. His tea shop hosts nightly events (Friday is game night!) that draw in scores of artists, musicians, and poets like King, who has been a pillar of New Orleans' spoken word community since he put out his first book at the precocious age of 18. Special Tea is starting to serve as a nexus of artistic talent, partly because, in King's estimation, people are sensing opportunities in Mid City. "I think people are rediscovering Mid City," he explains. "I get some customers that aren't from New Orleans, but they come here and they see the value in Mid City as an alternative to some other places in the city. It's not necessarily as artistic as, say, the Marigny, but it's becoming more artistic. It's not necessarily as ritzy as Uptown, but it's pretty nice. It's not necessarily as neighborhood-friendly as Gentilly, but it has a neighborhood feel. It has a little bit of everything."
Including, as of early January, a breakfast place that delivers, an idea so glorious that it has earned the pancrepe purveyors at Wakin' Bakin' the loyalty of a neighborhood that had been mourning the loss of Wakin' Bakin's predecessor, Huevos. "It's just a really good neighborhood spot," says Chura. "There are just a lot of people around here who, I mean, half our deliveries go [points out the front window] right there, right around the block."
"Oh yeah," agrees manager Crystal Payne. "We deliver to neighborhood people all the time."
And the neighborhood is growing. Since, moving to Mid City several years ago, Payne has seen the Mid City talent roster fill out. When Jeff Baron and Bart Bell put the brakes on Huevos, Payne says that she and the Wakin' guys saw a chance to move out of their temporary digs at Holy Ground and start their own thing:
We've lived in the neighborhood for several years now, and it's been really interesting watching the neighborhood come back. There's still a lot of construction going on around here, but we were coming to this spot back when it was Huevos. We were really bummed when it closed, so we sort of hassled them [Bart Bell and Jeff Baron] into letting us have the spot. We've been eyeballing it for a while. In taking its breakfast door-to-door, Wakin' Bakin' is proving to be one of the more creative business models in Mid City. It's that kind of creativity, says King, that keeps New Orleans from being just another cold city in Ohio:
Could you imagine New Orleans without the creative people? It'd be like any city in Ohio. Creative people are vital to the culture of New Orleans because we are the culture, we provide it. From the brass band musicians, to the poets, to the artists?there is no New Orleans without us. I wouldn't come here if we didn't have the eclectic, artsy people. The one thing about the artistic community is that it brings so many diverse people together. So many diverse mindsets, backgrounds, and we all find common ground in our love for creativity. Right now, this particular stretch of Banks Street is the becoming the common ground for neighborhood residents and the eclectic string of restaurants that serves them.