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Cafe Dauphine lights up the Ninth

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Keisha Henry goes to the Restaurant Depot most mornings, selecting spring mix, bell peppers, onions, garlic and other supplies to get ready for business.

“Because we use fresh produce, we have to buy it every day,” said Henry, co-owner of Café Dauphine, the Lower Ninth Ward’s only white-tablecloth restaurant. She shops a couple of hours in the morning and then works in the restaurant from 3 p.m. to closing.

“I’m trying to master the technique of every other day,” she jokes.

The restaurant is the first to prosper in a neighborhood that since Hurricane Katrina has frequently been called a “food desert.” A steady stream of diners arrives for lunch and dinner daily, including military personnel from the nearby National Guard headquarters, local residents and business people.

In the desert, there is an oasis.

At 5-foot, 10-inches, Henry is an imposing presence at Cafe Dauphine, which opened a year ago June. Whether greeting customers, cooking or managing the kitchen, she keeps a watchful eye over the house to ensure everyone is well served. She need not worry, because staff members beam the pride that comes from homegrown success.

Bottles of Heinz Ketchup, Crystal Hot Sauce and packets of saltines are set on every table beside a vase with red rosebuds. Eggshell-white wainscoting offset the ochre walls and hanging lamps emanate an amber glow. The restaurant is noisy with the clatter of cooking and chatter of conversation.

Six panoramic windows look out at potted palms and architecturally historic homes. Her brother Fred Henry was general contractor on the building’s renovation.

Cafe Dauphine’s fare ranges from catfish and oysters, gumbo, burgers, pasta and anything made with shrimp to signature dishes, such as Lizardi rolls and deep-fried stuffed bell peppers.

“People are really loving our menu,” said Keisha Henry, grinning. Customers want to eat food that is familiar, she explained, although the kitchen does whip up specials that give regular customers more variety.

Henry and sister-in-law Tia decided to open a restaurant to spark a revival in their neighborhood, which was devastated by Katrina. If Walgreen’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken would reopen, it would help even more, she said. But Walgreen’s storefront has been transformed into a church and community center.

“People do come across the bridge, do come from Arabi to support the neighborhood,” Henry said enthusiastically. “We’re hidden, but people find us.”

“Cafe Dauphine has been one of the best beacons of light,” said Ward “Mack” McClendon, who runs the Lower 9th Ward Village Community Center and is trying to reopen a skateboard park. “I know it was tough for them to get it up and running, but they were committed to it.”

Positive restaurant reviews and word-of-mouth recommendations have lured people to the Lower Nine who haven’t been there for several years.

“They see kids riding their bikes, people interacting and families. They see the core of the Ninth Ward,” Henry said.

Before Hurricane Katrina, Henry was a social worker, doing recreation therapy and counseling for substance abuse. Lack of resources due to budget cuts discouraged her.

“I had a vision of a cafe and sandwich shop,” she said. Tia Henry wanted a full-service restaurant that would bring every possible customer through the door. Their neighbor, “Mr. Bob,” sold them the building.

“I’m hoping that through Cafe Dauphine, boutiques, novelty shops, could see that a small business can survive in this neighborhood,” Keisha Henry said.

A FedEx office, hair and nail salon have opened on St. Claude Avenue near the bridge, hoping to catch commuters as well as residents as they drive downtown.

McClendon calls the family members “hearted” people who have invested in the community they serve. They’ve not only stayed with the neighborhood, they’ve “embraced” it, he said.

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Mary Rickard has been a regular contributor to the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the New Orleans Advocate, as well as newspapers and wire services in other locales. Feel free to send her comments or critiques at [email protected]