Marti's Restaurant is sometimes referred to as the Sardi's of New Orleans. (Maybe someday Sardi's will be referred to as the Marti's of New York ….) The restaurant is situated near the Municipal Auditorium and Quarter nightspots, and is patronized mainly by the colorful theatre crowd.
You enter the restaurant at 1041 Dumaine. To get to the dining room, you snake your way through the people and memorabilia in the bar. In the evenings an effervescent, swashbuckling maitre d' will guide you.
Once seated, you may order from the menu or check the daily specials posted on the blackboards. No matter what you order, it is unlikely that you will be disappointed, since Marti's concept if to present to their patrons fresh local foods and seasonal delicacies.
The Stuffed mushrooms are a toothsome appetizer. Two large hollowed mushrooms caps are filled with crabmeat. They are heated and topped with an excellent rich hollandaise sauce. The Oysters on the Half Shell are among the best in the city.
Marti's serves a savory Crabmeat Bisque. This soup alone is enough to make a trip to Marti's worthwhile. It is available by the cup or the bowl. The Turtle Soup with Sherry may be the most succulent presentation of turtle meat in New Orleans since Commander's Palace stopped cooking Soft Shell Turtle Stew.
Try the Spinach Salad for Two. It is so fresh and healthy you expect a Popeye-like burst of strength as you devour it. All of Marti's salads are crisp and enjoyable, and they have an especially good blue cheese dressing.
Truit Farci is occasionally offered. Check the blackboard, and when this fine entree is available, by all means order it. It is baked trout stuffed with crabmeat and enhanced with a meuniere sauce.
Marti's also serves a fine Eggplant Stuffed with Shrimp and Crabmeat. One of the more unusual local foods Marti's serves is grilled Andouille. This sausage is offered in various ways — with potatoes and collard greens or with lima beans.
The delicious French bread is custom-baked at a local bakery. The wines are of good quality and are not overpriced. The carafes of house wines are more than adequate. Desserts are well-prepared. Order the bread pudding or the Beignets Marti.
The seating at Marti's discourages claustrophobics and people who flinch at physical contact. It is sometimes crowded. The tables are close together and there are banquettes along the walls. You may find yourself sitting on a long bench less than a foot away from the strangers at the adjacent table. Seventy-six people can be fitted in the room at one time.
The decor in the dining area is a cross between Galatoire's and Houlihan's. There are plenty of mirrors, but not much light. Marti's has a token hat rack and a lot of antiques, including murals, circa 1911, from the old DeSoto Hotel. The walls are red and the ceiling is cork. The tables are adorned with linen tablecloths and linen napkins. The chairs are bentwood. The atmosphere might be described as sophisticatedly campy.
The restaurant is open for dinner seven days a week. Monday through Friday it is also open for lunch. On Sundays, beginning at 11 a.m., a brunch if featured. Make reservations, and expect to pay about $15.00 per person for dinner with wine (considerably less for lunch or brunch).
Henry Robinson was born in Mississippi, and learned to cook from two of his uncles who were chefs on the East Coast. He has been here in New Orleans for 22 years.
Robinson admits that he was not too surprised when Martin Shambra announced in 1971 that he wanted to establish a restaurant and that he wanted him to be the head chef. “I had cooked for a lot of his friends at the family camp. They always seemed to like my cooking.”
Robinson is an important figure in the community, being involved in many civic projects and preaching at a church of the Seventh Day Adventists.
Martin Shambra is a 27-year-old businessman, artist, and connoisseur who created Marti's Restaurant. A native of New Orleans, he studied architecture at LSU in Baton Rouge for four years, and then went to NYU where he earned a degree in fine arts. While in New York, he got the idea of establishing a restaurant in New Orleans, so he and Dr. Larry Hill opened Marti's on May 15, 1971. Shambra finished his schooling, returned to the Crescent City, bought out his partner, and acquired the building in which Marti's is located.
Martin Shambra: “I'm spending my life on this corner.” (Photo by D. Kirkpatrick)
The Community Standard: Why did you open Marti's?
Shambra: At the time you could not get a meal in New Orleans after nine o'clock, and you had to have a coat and tie if you wanted to eat well. This city, of all cities, really lent itself to casual dining. We recognized the need.
Also, I wanted to make an investment in restoration architecture in the Quarter. Somewhere along the line it was proposed, “What would I think of doing a restaurant?” With my architectural background, I got all caught up in the problems of moving people through a space, and I decided that it would be more fun to design a restaurant that to do one more standard “cut up a building and make apartments” type thing.
The Community Standard: Did you have previous experience in operating a restaurant?
Shambra: None whatsoever. I was a lifeguard at the Fontainebleu, and I know how difficult it was to get sandwiches out of the kitchen.
The Community Standard: Has any of your family been in the food business?
Shambra: We'd have to go back to my great-grandfather. He came over from Italy at the turn of the century, and supported himself by selling fresh produce off a donkey carriage. From there he got a stand in the French Market. From the stand, he got other donkeys and carriages and started a delivery business with his friends selling produce. With money from the delivery business and stable, he bought his own home. His children (my grandparents) went into the grocery business, but my father ended up in the construction business.
The Community Standard: What is the history of the building in which Marti's is located?
Shambra: The building has always been tied in with food and entertainment. Around 1887 it was actually a grocery store and in the middle of the floor were tables where you could get sandwiches.
At the turn of the century, people would come here to eat, to drink, and relax after Bourbon Street shut down for the night. There'd be card games in the corner. There'd be saxophone, clarinet players spilling out their noise — they were playing for themselves, not an audience. They were here at four o'clock in the morning after having played twelve hours at a place to support themselves.
Around 1910 Mr. Gentilich established a grocery and restaurant business on this corner. This place was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for about 46 years.
The Community Standard: When Mr. Gentilich retired, what became of the business?
Shambra: Around '67 or '68 three businessmen rented the place. They did this dining room as an Italian restaurant and in the back supposedly they had private dining rooms, but they all had mattresses. They had lights on the door and it was supposedly so they'd know when you wanted a waiter for service to get food back in there. So actually, in 1968 it was an attempt to do a real, first class New Orleans bordello with food.
The Community Standard: How did that work out?
Shambra:Well, what happened was they were all trying to take out a fast $50,000 on a $10,000 investment and none of them cared about the business. They were all upstairs or in the back rooms, so it couldn't very well remain a restaurant.
So in 1969 or 1970 Mr. Gentilich closed the corner and it stayed vacant until 1971 when I rented it.
I respected Mr. Gentilich. He had put in a lifetime on this corner and had really worked hard. I was very proud to have his corner and I always let it be known. I left his name on the steps. As time passed, he saw that we had brought the corner back to what it originally was. He was finding that people would say, “You know where Marti's is? You remember old Gentilich's? Well, it's on that corner.”
The Community Standard: How did you come to by Mr. Gentilich's building?
Shambra: When I finished school, the restaurant was three years old. I made the decision to buy out my business partner. Then I went to Mr. Gentilich and I said, “Listen, I'm a young man, and I'm spending my life on this corner. I do not intend, after putting a lifetime of work and effort into this corner, thirty years from now to find that I'm going to have to pack a suitcase and walk away from this corner. I want to know if I can have this corner. If not, I don't blame you, I just want to know … I'll walk away from it tomorrow. I want to know now.”
He held me very high in his esteem — my being a young, hard-working man like he had been. I had brought back the recognition and pride that could be associated with the Gentilich name.
He told me he'd sell it to me.
Available directly from the publisher, and at many museum bookstores.
An Affair of the Heart: America's Romance with Louisiana Food
A Dover book available from Mitchells Publications.
The Picayune's Creole Cook Book
Copyright © 1974–2006 Patricia B. Mitchell.