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Monday, May 3, 2021

Still The Finest

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At Ernest’s Orleans, Chef Ernest Palmisano Jr. continues a 70-year legacy built upon Fresh Seafood and Old-School Service.

If you're ever sent to interview Chef Ernest Palmisano Jr. at Ernest's Orleans – the restaurant that he and his late mother, Marjorie, opened on Spring Street in 1988 – here's a word of advice: Don't try to interview him near the door. If you do, everyone who walks in is going to leap into Palmisano's arms as if they're being reunited with a long-lost friend, disrupting the interview every 90 seconds or so.

After a few such interruptions during my recent attempt to interview Ernest Jr., I realized that these joyful exchanges were much more fun and revealing of his character than the interview would have been.

Noticing an older patron teetering a bit in the dim, red light of the Club Room, Ernest quietly sidled up next to her and took her by the hand. The woman beamed up at him.

"Let me have the pleasure of showing you to your table," he said in his low, raspy drawl.

A silver-haired gentleman walked past the table where I'd been interviewing Ernest, noticed the chef escorting his guest, and remarked aloud, "He's just like his daddy."

Any culinary history of Shreveport would be incomplete without the story of Ernest's Orleans and the many Palmisano-run restaurants that came before it.

The story begins at an unexpected place: the intersection of Kings Highway and Youree Drive, where Shreveport’s newest Whataburger currently stands. Ernest Palmisano Sr. opened his first Shreveport restaurant, The Chef, in a squat, black building at 519 E. Kings Hwy. in late November of 1947. The restaurant served French, Italian and Creole cuisine, a distinctly New Orleanian blend of offerings.

Though he was a new restaurant owner in 1947, Palmisano wasn't new to the world of hospitality. Beginning in 1933, he was frequently praised in local publications as one of Shreveport's top bartenders, a craft that he'd honed in New Orleans. When he changed jobs, moving from one bar to another, his new employer would take out a newspaper ad to announce his hiring. This suggests that he was a local celebrity even early in his career. One ad goes so far as to say, "The whole town of Shreveport looks upon (Ernest) as the authority on drinks."

In 1952, Palmisano and several partners opened their first private club, the Key Club, located next door to The Chef. Private clubs would be a theme throughout Palmisano's career. His next restaurant, Ernest's Stable Club at 624 Commerce St., also operated as a private club for some time. In 1965, he and business partner Orlando Hawkins opened the club that would make Palmisano a bona fide celebrity, revitalize the Shreveport riverfront and change the way that generations of Shreveporters ate crab claws.

Ernest's Supper Club, located first at 516 and later at 624 Commerce St., was a private supper club for members and invited guests. Valet parking was provided, waiters wore formal attire, and autographed portraits of celebrities who'd visited the club lined the walls of the foyer, as they do at Ernest's Orleans today. 

“A Monday night down there was like a Saturday night; every night was good,” Ernest Jr. told me. “His whole philosophy was that you should give folks the very best that you could give them. It was the epitome of service.”

The menu emphasized fresh seafood: Kentucky limestone lettuce salad with lump crab meat, Ernest's impeccable fried butterflied shrimp and Snapper Ernest were favorites.

No menu item compared in popularity to Ernest's marinated crab claws. buried underneath a mountain of finely chopped herbs and vegetables, good olive oil and tarragon vinegar, the sweet blue crab claws disappear quickly. What’s left behind is the best part: Lots of delicious herbs and oil waiting to be sopped with warm, crusty bread.

For several decades, Ernest's Supper Club anchored a bustling riverfront entertainment scene. The section of Commerce Street occupied by the restaurant and neighboring bar, Ernest's Steamboat Room, was so busy on weekends that traffic police were forced to convert it to one-way traffic, shutting down one lane to reduce congestion on Friday and Saturday evenings.

Despite some setbacks along the way – most notably, Ernest's Supper Club's original location at 516 Commerce St. burned in 1977, and the restaurant later reopened one block closer to what is now Festival Plaza – Ernest's Supper Club enjoyed an incredible run.

Chef Ernest Palmisano passed away in 1983 at age 72. Ernest's Supper Club closed a few years later. Chef Ernest Palmisano Jr. assumed the mantle of "serving the finest," a slogan that serves as a governing philosophy for all Palmisano-run restaurants.

When Ernest’s Supper Club closed, Bob Griffin, writing as a restaurant reporter for The Shreveport Journal, suggested that “for Shreveport-Bossier, losing Ernest’s Supper Club is like losing a member of the family.”

In 1988, Ernest Jr. reached out to his mother and asked for her help with his next project: Ernest's Orleans. Age 60 and semi-retired at the time, Marjorie had led an accomplished career in the New Orleans hospitality industry, including management roles at some of New Orleans' most revered fine dining destinations.

"I called my mama at her home in New Orleans, and I said, 'Ma, I've got a chance to get this place, but I need your help," Ernest told me, a gleam in his eye. "Six hours after I made that call, she was here. She got off the phone, packed a bag and got in the car."

Marjorie and Ernest Jr. made an incredible team, with "Margie" managing the restaurant's business dealings and Ernest Jr. overseeing food and service for nearly three decades. Marjorie Palmisano died in 2017, leaving behind an enormous absence that Ernest Jr. still struggles to put into words. Strong women have had Ernest Jr.'s back throughout his life; since he married Tina Marie in 2007, she has become a fixture in the world of Ernest's and a popular local chef in her own right.

One of the most remarkable elements of Ernest's story, in my opinion, is the loyalty of many staffers who worked for the Palmisanos. Bartender John Lisi, for example, must have tended bar for one of the two Chef Ernests for a total of 60 years or longer. Server Columbus Severin, who also worked for the Palmisanos for something like 60 years, told The Times in 1997 that he had waited on “every Louisiana governor since Earl K. Long.”

While Lici and Severin have passed away, there is still so much of the original Ernest's Supper Club that can be enjoyed by visitors to Ernest's Orleans.

If you go, make time for a drink at the bar. The ornate wooden fixtures in the bar also framed the bar at Ernest's Supper Club. The Palmisanos have documentation showing that elements of the bar were built for use during the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904.

Then there is the food. Set aside any thought of current dining trends and enjoy the opulence of New Orleans-style fine dining circa the mid-20th century. Enjoy crab claws and Snapper Ernest in the dining room. Have an order of Bananas Foster prepared tableside or a flaming mixture of liqueurs called Caffe San Pedro to close out the night.

To younger diners who have never dined at Ernest's out of concern that it is too stuffy, outdated or expensive: You're always going to have another chance to eat in a fast-casual restaurant that looks like a Chipotle. Why not dress up, valet park, eat or drink something indulgent that's been prepared tableside, and tip your tuxedo-clad server well? When will you have another chance?

"We're trying to keep a good thing going," Ernest Jr. told me. "All I can do is try and continue what they started."

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