NEW ORLEANS — JoAnn Clevenger was certain she would reopen Upperline, her New Orleans Creole restaurant, for most of the 18 months since the Covid-19 pandemic forced its closing. As she started to face her fears of losing the business she loved, her confidence began to crack this summer. “platform”For 38 years.
“I was paralyzed not knowing what I was going to do with the rest of my life,”Ms. Clevenger is 82.
Ms. Clevenger said this month that Upperline would not be part of her future plans. While the restaurant is officially for sale, the retirement of its founder, who embraced her hostess role as a higher calling, marks the end of an era for an establishment whose charisma reflected its owner’s.
“I found JoAnn to be an intoxicating character,”Gabriel Stafford, 39 years old, worked for Upperline for eleven years. “I felt like I was ensconced in New Orleans-ness while working there.”
This restaurant was also one of a decreasing number of restaurants that championed a type of urban-rural cuisine that made New Orleans an internationally acclaimed culinary destination.
While Ms. Clevenger came up with dishes for Upperline’s traditional menu, including the fried green tomatoes topped with shrimp rémoulade that became a New Orleans staple, she was never the chef. Her three dining rooms were hers. Each room doubled as a gallery, with most of the artwork being by New Orleans artists. She acquired the collection when she had a very small gallery in the French Quarter in 1960.
“I did not sell one picture in three months, so I had to give it up,”She spoke.
Ms. Clevenger is coowner with Jason Clevenger (her son) and Alan Greenacre (her husband). They plan to sell the building, and they are open to selling it if Ms. Clevenger believes that the buyer will be honest. “will carry on what we built.”The art can also be purchased.
Ms. Clevenger, on a recent Upperline tour, stopped beneath Jean Flanigen’s portrait of a domestic employee with a scarf around her neck (above), and paused. “Look at how beautiful she is,”Ms. Clevenger spoke highly of the portrait. “It demands respect.”
Upperline’s rear dining rooms were filled with late-afternoon light when Ms. Clevenger walked into them. She stopped to pose next to a Noel Rockmore portrait of Sister Gertrude Morgan (below, over Ms. Clevenger’s left shoulder), a preacher whose artwork was critically praised before her death in New Orleans in 1980. Rockmore, a revered New Orleans artist of his era, was a fixture in the French Quarter bohemian milieu that enchanted Ms. Clevenger when she was a young woman working in the neighborhood’s bars and restaurants.
“I knew Rockmore, but was afraid of him,”She spoke. “He was an intense womanizer. He drank a lot.”
Another nearby Rockmore portrait features the piano player Frank Moliere (below), who was known as Little Daddy — musicians were frequently featured in the artist’s work. Ms. Clevenger was reminded of the time Robert Plant, the lead singer of Led Zeppelin dined at Upperline.
“I’m not very up on popular music,”She spoke. “I didn’t know he was a really big deal.”
This was how Ms. Clevenger’s afternoon went. Artwork brought back memories from her French Quarter days, when she was a precocious 20 year old from north Louisiana. One minute she was thinking about Typpa Hanush. “quite spectacular woman” who sold turtle-liver pâté in the French Market and occasionally babysat for Ms. Clevenger’s children. She suddenly noticed the table in front of him and decided to change subjects.
“This is where Jeff Bezos sat,”She said. She told the story of the night Amazon founder and owner The Washington Post, Mr. Bezos sat at the table next to Dean Baquet’s relatives, an executive editor of The New York Times. He was a native of New Orleans. “I gave them each a little note, telling them who was at the other table,”She spoke. “It’s about connections.”
She also gave a printed list of local bookstores she recommends to MacKenzie Scott, who was then Mr. Bezos’ wife. “It felt really good that I could give them a list of these brick-and-mortar stores he’s on the way to destroying.”
Ms. Clevenger was performing — as cultural ambassador, light gossip, amateur historian — in much the same way she did when Upperline was in full flower.
“She knew how to tie together great ingredients, both in her dishes and her dining room,”Walter Isaacson is a Tulane University professor, New Orleans native and the author.
She turned back to the front of the restaurant, passing a Joseph Ayers portrait of Ken Smith (above), the restaurant’s longest-serving chef, who left to become a Roman Catholic priest in 2010. She stopped in the middle dining room (below), which has a checkerboard floor. A photo portrait of Jason Clevenger’s successor as chef, Tom Cowman, hangs in the center of a window. “Tom was really into books and art,” Ms. Clevenger said. “He taught me so much.”
Back in the restaurant’s front room, she picked up a framed copy (below left) of the menu from the night Upperline reopened after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Mr. Isaacson said that it was a great place to eat in the days following the storm. “where we regained our faith that the city would rebound.”
Ms. Clevenger stated that Upperline was kept open because of the gratitude she felt for customers during those difficult times. “My family has been bugging me to retire for at least 10 years,”She spoke.
She explained what attracted her to hospitality when she worked on Bourbon Street in the 1960s and ’70s. “I remembered things about the customers and the bartenders and the other people that worked on the street,”She spoke. “And they loved that, and that made me feel good that I made them feel good. It’s a benevolent circle.”
A few minutes later Ms. Clevenger was back in those days as she provided a narrative to a photo of Bourbon House (above left), the French Quarter bar where Tennessee Williams met. “His cousin introduced us,”She spoke. “Her name was Stella.”
“Take a look at the pretty sky, JoAnn,”Mr. Greenacre was unnoticed when he entered the restaurant.
Ms. Clevenger looked out the window and chuckled at the beauty of the setting sun before opening the shutters to take one last photo.
“Let’s capture it before it goes away,”She spoke.