Sebastian Mandina came from Palermo, Italy in 1898, to open the building at 3800 Canal Street as a grocery store. It was a favorite of the Italian immigrants who'd come from New York to prosper off of the farm lands of Southern Louisiana. Sebastian was an entreprenuer who saw the need for a store in the largely residential Mid-City area. His two young sons, Anthony and Frank, grew up in the family business throughout the early 1900's. The boys would see Mandina's evolve from a grocery store to a pool-hall that sold sandwiches. It was Anthony and Frank who would turn the pool-hall into today's Mandina's Restaurant in 1932. The family continued to live upstairs. Frank lived on one side; Anthony and his wife, a tough red-head named Hilda, lived on the other. Anthony bartended while Hilda managed the dining room. "Hilda would come out and talk to all the people, be nice with everybody. It just evolved into a neighborhood restaurant," describes Cindy Mandina, the restaurant's fourth generation proprieter.
During World War II, Frank and Anthony went to serve their country and Hilda ran the restaurant. “In the 1940’s that was unheard of,” explains Cindy, “a woman running a restaurant.” Despite the pressures of operating a popular New Orleans restaurant, Anthony and Hilda managed to have one child, Anthony Thomas Mandina, Cindy’s father.
“My father was born and raised upstairs,” says Cindy, “he grew up working in the restaurant. He went to St. Aloysius High School, Loyola for college, and he got married. He worked in the restaurant as a bartender.” Cindy describes how her father ventured into other professions, including lightbulb sales, and life insurance. “Then my grandfather, Anthony, had a heart attack in 1972. That was when my dad started working full time with my grandmother, Miss Hilda.” Cindy has few memories of her grand-mother and great uncle. “My Uncle Frank died in ‘85. Miss Hilda died in 1979. I didn’t know my grandfather because I was born in ‘71. As far as my grandmother, yeah, she was here. We would come visit her Sundays after we’d go to church. My Great-Uncle Frank, I knew him because he lived upstairs and you’d see him once a week. He was a nice man.” Two daughters were born to Tommy and his wife: Cindy and Valerie. The girls were not exposed to the hectic restaurant environment. Sundays were the exception. “We would come and eat with my mom’s mother and that was it. He didn’t bring us around the restaurant.” That wouldn’t last long. Before Cindy was ten-years-old she was seduced by the fast-paced restaurant industry. Cindy and her friend started bussing tables for Mr. Henry, the waiter. "He was so patient, even though I knew he wanted to curse me out.” She laughs, “I thought I was doing something.”
Cindy worked for her father during the day while attending Loyola at night. She would answer the telephone, help with salads, and do to-go orders. When Cindy received her MBA, she took on Mandina’s full-time. “I had a passion for it. I liked the business. I liked the excitement. I liked the controversy.” Cindy was the subject of much talk. “I caused controversy when I started working here. I was 24-25 years old. I was the bosses daughter,” she explains. She often heard comments like, “who in the hell is this young girl?” She had replaced management that had been there for twenty-five years. “What right did she have to do that?,” they argued. “The first two to three years working here were very hard. I went home and cried a lot, but it made me a strong person,” she remembers. Cindy recalls the growing pains associated with learning a family business. “My father was harder on me than he would be with anyone else, because he wanted to break me and make me strong, and able to handle it. I would go upstairs and he would criticize me. He wouldn’t do that to other management. Plus I was a woman in this industry.” The success of Mandina’s was exploding. “Midcity was up and coming. The streetcar had come back,” explained Cindy. She points outside at the newly returned Canal streetcar, clattering down the track. “Look right now, the streetcar’s coming!” Midcity pre-Katrina, was growing in popularity. There was a concern that Mandina’s wouldn't come back after the storm. Cindy insisted on it. “It was a financial risk, but I had to reinvest in my city.” When asked what Mandinas represents, Cindy replies that Mandina’s is the quintessential neighborhood restaurant. “You get the Miss Hilda Old Fashion’ the same as if she had made it herself." Yes, the interior looks classier. The Katrina floodwater altered Mandina's appearance. Cindy makes no apologies, "I’m trying to bring it back to the way it looked back in 1930. Let’s bring it back to the bare bones of the thirties.”
Don’t be mistaken by the face lift; the food, the atmosphere, and most of the employees are the same. “There are things on the menu that have been on the menu for 75 years. Bruccilone was always on the menu; my grandfather, Anthony, would always cook that.” Mandina’s still boasts the waning trend of house charges, and substitutions. “My grandmother would come in, sit down, and talk to you, have a conversation, feed the kids, and get them situated,” explains Cindy, “You took care of the neighborhood people and the people that would come in here. Just take care of the locals, cater to their needs and desires. We’re a place that if you substitute something, we’ll do it. We have no problem with substitutions and, ‘I don’t want macaroni. I want double string beans. I need a bowl of lima beans, instead of a cup. Can you do that?’ I say, ‘Sure! We’ll take care of you. You been coming here for twenty years.’ That’s what we’re all about.”