Sunday, April 10, 2011

Dining Alone - A dark street

I'm pretty adventurous, and I think I have some street smarts. As a young woman I lived in some pretty scarey sections of New York City, and because of my job, I often came home late at night or in the early hours of the morning. I feel pretty confident exploring strange cities on my own.

But I also have a good "spidey sense" that I heed when it comes over me.
On our recent trip to New Orleans, [The Man I Love] had an evening meeting, and I was on my own. I had a short list of restaurants I wanted to try, and thought I'd choose one for a solo dinner on a Monday night.

Monday nights are tough for dining in most cities, including New Orleans, but Gautreau's was open. I made a reservation for one, at 7:00 pm.

Sadly, New Orleans has a crime problem, and tourists are typically warned to beware. But Gautreau's is located in Uptown, on Soniat Street, which isn't one of the neighborhoods you hear bad things about.

In late February, it was twilight when I boarded the St. Charles streetcar. I asked the driver to let me know what stop was closest to Soniat Street. He told me it was between stops, but he'd let me off just a block before.

As I crossed St. Charles Avenue and turned to watch, two streetcars passed one another in the dusk.

It was a pretty evening. I turned off the Avenue and walked north. I passed old homes behind brick-piered fences, shaded by old spreading oaks, and looked at the address numbers.

If you look closely at this tile-marked intersection, you'll see what I missed. It was right in front of me.

I'd read that Gautreau's was located in a quiet neighborhood, and it was tricky to find, since it didn't have a sign. But when I got to what should have been the right number, it didn't seem right.

I went on. At the corner on Daneel Street, a large industrial building loomed in the darkness. On the far corner, there was a building like a gym, and from within came the sounds of basketballs bouncing on hardwood floors, and shouting youths. Beyond were asphalt parking lots, fenced with barbed wire. It didn't seem right.

And then I looked at the street sign. I wasn't on Soniat Street. I was on Dufosset Street. What a dummy I was! I hadn't even looked at the sign when I turned off St. Charles.

Well. I knew it had to be just a block or two one way or the other. But which way? I tell you, I don't know how I felt exactly. I wasn't frightened, but some of the reviews had mentioned things like "take a cab" and "it's a sketchy neighborhood." Mostly I just felt like I wanted to know the quickest way, because I didn't want to arrive late for my reservation.

So as I stood, briefly, on the corner of Dufosset and Daneel, wondering if I should pull my cellphone out of my bag and check the Yelp listing map, I realized that, parked on the curb at Daneel, pointing toward the basketball gym, was a NOPD patrol car, idling, with an officer at the wheel.

I crossed the street and walked up to the passengers side - the window was open - and said, "Excuse me, sir, can you tell me which direction is Soniat Street?"

Let me say that my experience with police officers is a positive yet pragmatic one. I have worked together with them in crowd control situations many times, and have never encountered them personally in a negative way. I'm respectful, and appreciate their work. On the other hand, I've learned - I've been on the receiving end, professionally - that sometimes police officers think of "civilians" as lesser beings, folks who just don't know the whole picture. (As a member of another subgroup that thinks the same, I can empathize.)

This officer said to me, flatly, "I wouldn't know." Now - excuse me - but why would a police officer not know the streets where he was on patrol?

That was the moment that my spidey-sense, which I mentioned before, began to flare like a strobe light. Was he on a stake-out? Was something going down? Was I in the wrong place? Did he think I was suspicious? I felt a flutter of unease.

"Okay," I said, "thanks!" and I hitched my bag up higher on my shoulder and kept walking, and fortunately I had turned in the right direction, for there was Soniat Street at the next corner.

And there was Gautreau's. Gautreau's is a small restaurant, in an historic building that was once a pharmacy. It's often described in reviews as a "jewel box" of a place, with an ornate tin ceiling, an antique apothecary case housing the bar, and pretty trompe d'oeil painted walls. It has a superb chef, and has received rave reviews for its food.

As I sat at my single table in the corner, waiting for my heartbeat to slow, I sipped at an apertif of Lillet blanc on the rocks with a twist. A part of twelve or so business-people - dressed in suits and dressy dresses - were assembled at a table nearby and were loudly celebrating some corporate achievement. At other tables, couples sat in the amber candlelight.

The restaurant is named after Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, who was an ancestor of its founder and first chef, Ann Russell Avegno. A Louisiana Creole girl, she was the daughter of a Confederate general who moved with her mother to Paris at the age of eight. When she grew up she married a banker and became notorious for her beauty, elegance and love affairs. Her portrait was painted by John Singer Sargent in 1884 - and it shocked the art world with its sensuality.

A print of the famous painting hangs in an alcove just behind the hostess station at Gautreau's.

It was unsettling to move from the dark immediacy of the streets into this lush, protected, elitist refuge. Between the cheerfulness of the large party, and the intimacy of the romantic couples, I felt out of place - which is rare for me.

I ordered a meal. I ate. I savored each bite, each sip. I even had dessert - something I rarely do. It cost quite a lot. When I was ready to go, I asked the waiter to call me a cab.

It's all a blur to me. I couldn't tell you what I ate. Scallops, I think. The only vivid memory I have is of the journey there.

I wanted to check my facts after coming away from this experience. Was I right to feel nervous? So I checked the archives of the Times-Picayune newspaper, and the local neighborhood website for this area both going back a year or so, and found that, while there were occasional crimes as there are in every city, this wasn't all that bad a neighborhood, statistically.

In retrospect, I really wonder about the officer I encountered. I think it would be quite obvious that a middle aged white lady with a northern accent in that neighborhood around dinner time was looking for Gautreau's restaurant - a pretty famous tourist attraction. He could easily have directed me right to its door, and I would have come away with a memory of his charming courtesy. He was probably just having a bad night.

Dining Alone is often an unexpected adventure - have you ever felt unsafe going to a restaurant by yourself?


yogurt said...

I admire your moxie. I don't know if it's a lack of courage or memory cells but I can't remember the last time I felt afraid in a neighborhood. One experience that comes to mind was the time Sam and I visited a Habitat for Humanity Restore in a dicey neighborhood. Because he was getting antsy, I took my young son for a walk. We stopped in a little store to get him something to drink. I was so focused on him choosing his juice, and wondering why there were so few to choose from, that I wasn't noticing the clientele around me. Scroungy addict and prostitute types. I remember they sold cigarettes individually outside the pack. Watching the scrufty bearded, tattooed, clerk count out five cigarettes was my first clue of the shady business. That's when I looked around and felt afraid. I felt so out of place, me in my 100% cotton suburban attire with my little golden headed boy, like two sore thumbs surrounded by desperate souls. I debated leaving the juice behind but stood my ground in line and all was well.

Kate said...

I'd be disappointed in that police officer as well; he's paid to serve. Wonder what was up with him that evening....


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...


Gilly said...

Scary! I think I might have called a cab and gone right home - without eating!

Dining alone is no fun. When I've had to do it, I've taken a book and buried myself in that and *** the clientele!

Marsha said...

There are towns where you talk to the cops, and there are towns where you don't talk to the cops. In some towns, it depends on who you are. In others, it depends on who they are. In Nola, I think it's the latter, and I would be hesitant.

SUEB0B said...

The only time I have felt a little intimidated was when I was out walking the streets of Oaxaca city, looking for a friend's house, and I got hopelessly lost in a part of town that was quite poverty-stricken as night was falling. I just kept breathing and walking, and I eventually stumbled onto my friend's home.

Sometimes I walk a path here where people sleep in the bushes and jump a little when someone emerges out of a bush.