It was 10:51, February 7th, 2007. The sun filtering through the blinds showed the steady arrival of customers. It was 10:55, five minutes until Mandina’s would open its doors for the first time in 18 months. It’s return was a sign of hope for Midcity, an area still limping towards recovery after taking six feet of Katrina’s floodwater.
The bartenders stocked the bar, knowing they would feel the first pinch of a swelling crowd. The general manager, Martial, looked to Cindy Mandina, the fourth generation owner of Mandina’s, and asked, “Are you good?” She looked at him with concentration, “I’m absolutely good.” The media was there, snapping pictures of the bustling kitchen staff. The chef of 25 years, Chef Isadore, wore his signature captain’s hat. Through the months, he’d watched over every aspect of the rebuilding of his kitchen. Today would be the payoff. A line-cook pulled a pan from the oven with one of Mandina’s signature dishes, stuffed bell peppers.
Waitress, Joy Arbuckle, the first female server hired at Mandinas twenty-five years earlier, took the last sip of her drink. Outside the door, Teryl Flettrich held a coveted position at the front of the line. She was waiting for her husband, David. He and his father, Harold ate at Mandina’s every day for seventeen years. Behind them, the crowd twisted around the building. Word had gotten out that Mandina’s was putting the finishing touches on the restaurant. The bright banner with red letters that promised, “We will be back,” still hung on the pink building.
As the clock hit the 11:00 hour, Cindy and Martial moved to the doorway. "Open the door," she said. Teryl, an agent for Keller-Williams, was first in. “Good seeing you,” said Cindy as she shook the hands of people entering. Customers hugged wait-staff. Teryl threw her arms around Murphy, one of Mandina’s returning waiters. Most of Mandina’s old staff had left other jobs to come back to their Mandina’s home.
The dining room filled up quickly. Kevin Manning, a Mandina’s bartender for sixteen years, made Miss Hilda Old Fashioned, after Old Fashioned. “We’re just so happy to be here,” said one woman as she reached for her drink. In the dining room Mr KJ, a Mandina’s waiter for forty years, set a bowl of gumbo in front of one of his regulars. At another table, Liz Hampton sat with Virginia and Nick Lorusso. Friends of the family, they panned the crowd for Cindy or Tommy. “We’re so looking forward to this,” said Nick.
In the kitchen, Cindy and Tommy worked side-by-side as the order tickets came pouring in. Tommy stood with his hands on his hips. “Fried chicken down, folks,” said Cindy. Diane Dagel, a new server, passed behind Cindy with a tray of appetizers including steaming turtle soup. Cindy called out a side subsitution, “no lima beans, string beans!”
The upper dining room was at capacity. A customer studied the changes in the restaurant. “They took advantage of the catastrophe to improve the business,” you could hear her say. A local woman reached into her pocket for her camera-phone, “I don’t think it lost its feel at all.” A man in a suit stood at the bar drinking a sazarac, “It was quaint before, but it’s nice now!”
The doorway was swollen with traffic. Two more names went on the waiting list. “Much nicer, much nicer,” said another loyal customer passing a Times Picayune reporter. Hollas Young, a patron of 40 years stood at the bar eating a steak. Flowers and other gifts came in, further crowding the bar. Nearby, a little girl named Theresa took pictures from her mother’s camera. She looked a lot like a nearby picture of the young Cindy Mandina. Theresa’s mother, Valerie, stood eyeing the grand opening with a sense of pride. She looked down to her daughter, the youngest Mandina present. Tommy Mandina came from the kitchen. The dining room erupted with applause.