By Grace Dubay
On a Saturday morning, the line extends out the door of Camellia Grill. Hungry locals and tourists stand underneath the iconic white columns, eager to sink their teeth into a Breakfast Po’ Boy. Customers of all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds fill the restaurant, breathing in the aroma of omelettes and bacon. The faded pink walls display paintings of beloved waiters, many of whom still work behind the counter. Patrons know what they’re in for when they visit Camellia Grill; not much has changed since its opening in 1946. The restaurant has done more than make delectable food. It has created a consistently enjoyable atmosphere that keeps generations coming back.
Lissa Aldridge remembers visiting Camellia Grill as a child on yearly trips to New Orleans with her mother. Now 60, she still frequents the restaurant whenever she’s back in town to visit family.
“My mother graduated from Sophie Newcomb College in 1950. Camellia Grill was where she and her best friend would sit and talk about their Saturday night dates, homework and any bits of news they needed to to catch up on. They were both from Chicago and they had a special bond because they were so far away from home. Camellia Grill is a landmark in my head and heart because it was a place my mother loved so much,” Aldridge said.
Camellia Grill, located on South Carrollton and St. Charles, has become a staple in many people’s lives even after they have left New Orleans. Manager Brian Armbruster mentioned how Homecoming Weekend at Tulane University draws back alumni who had fond memories of the restaurant during their college years. They recount stumbling to Camellia after a long night at Krewe de Muses or mustering up the energy to come in the next morning for a stack of pancakes.
“What I think keeps people coming back is the way we treat everybody who comes in here like family,” Armbruster said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a celebrity or dirt poor; we’re still going to act like we’ve known you forever.”
Besides a few menu changes or the addition of the neon sign above the entrance, little about Camellia Grill has changed over the years. Customers sit at the marble countertop, swiveling on the stools beneath them as they watch the chefs prepare savory dishes. Ronald Jaeger, who’s been a chef at the restaurant for 32 years, wears the same white chef jacket and black bowtie everyday to work.
“Ronald will be working behind the counter and someone will recognize him from the last time they were here. It could’ve been 20 years ago; they remember his face,” Armbruster said.
The proximity of the patrons to the waiters makes it nearly impossible for conversation not to take place. The bar-like seating arrangement gives customers full access to the wait staff and creates the opportunity to form connections over a plate of “mac n’ cheese bites.”
It’s not just the chocolate pecan pie or juicy cheeseburgers that keep customers coming back- it’s the sense of comfort patrons feel when they sit down at the counter for a meal. When the waiters are singing in an order or recounting the past Sunday’s Saints game, people can’t help but smile. They’ve been extremely successful in fostering a welcoming, cheerful environment that makes Camellia Grill a landmark restaurant for both tourists and New Orleans locals.
“It’s the kind of place people want to come back to. Most people don’t really like change, and I think it’s our consistency, even when the city around us changes, that draws everyone in,” Armbruster said. “I just hope we can keep it going for as long as possible.”