American Routes Shortcuts: Wayne Baquet, Sr. and Arkesha Baquet of Li'l Dizzy's Cafe
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The pandemic has been very tough on bars and restaurants everywhere and especially in New Orleans, with a culture of food and hospitality. The closing of a restaurant or neighborhood bar here feels like a death in the family. One such place is the Tremé landmark and community gathering spot, Li’l Dizzy’s. It was about to close for good in November. Li’l Dizzy’s owner, Wayne Baquet, Sr., had worked in his family’s restaurants all his life. The Creole Baquet family are also known for a lineage in music and the newspaper business. Get this: Wayne’s brother Dean is the Executive Editor of the New York Times. Brother Terry over sees the editorial page at New Orleans Times Picayune. I sat down with the retiring Wayne Baquet, Sr. and new co-owner, daughter-in-law Arkesha Baquet. Wayne recalled how the Baquet restaurant empire in New Orleans began.
Wayne Baquet, Sr.: Our first restaurant was open in the 1940s. It was a place called Paul Gross Chicken Coop. It was called that because they actually served fried chicken. Not too many people did that back then because they didn’t have deep fryers. Actually the person that inspired that was Ada Baquet Gross, Paul Gross’s wife and my great aunt. And it was in Tremé, on the corner of Bienville and Roman. That was our first restaurant. My dad worked there, I even worked there as a teenager. Then my dad went off on his own, opened up Eddie’s Restaurant. Kind of famous: 2119 Law Street in the Seventh Ward. And then from there, I broke off and opened up several different restaurants including one around the corner called Eddie Baquet’s and probably eight or nine other restaurants that I’ve had over the past nearly fifty years of doing this. And Wayne and Arkesha, they still have it going here at Li’l Dizzy’s for the future.
Nick Spitzer: There’s a whole side of your family that has been in music over the years as well. Do you see a connection between food and the music?
WB: The connection is that New Orleans represents the two most important things that–the culture of New Orleans is music, jazz specifically, and food. And then we’ve had many, many musicians in the family, including Li’l Dizzy, who is Zachary Baquet. This is named after my grandson.
Arekesha Baquet: Zachary was a trumpet player at St. Augustine High School, and his first year there, when he played the trumpet, his cheeks inflated really big and so they nicknamed him Li’l Dizzy after Dizzy Gillespie. And he is an awesome trumpet player. Music has been in the Baquet family for years. It’s a very vital part of us. The Covid situation was very hard to adjust in the beginning, but my mother-in-law Janet and my father-in-law Wayne, Sr. had to think about their health and their safety and what was best for them. So my father-in-law made the hard decision to close in March when restaurants were forced to go to take-out only. At some point, he and my mother-in-law Janet had a strong conversation and decided to retire. And at that time, Wayne, Jr. and I, we cried, we prayed, we thought about it, and we realized he had put so much into this family’s legacy. He didn’t close a restaurant because he had to; he closed them when he chose to. And so we made the decision in December, we went and met with my mother-in-law Janet and my father-in-law Wayne, Sr.
NS: And let’s remind people, father-in-law is sitting right here.
WB: Mhmm. They are both doing a good job of putting this thing together and adjusting to the new situation because of Covid-19. I mean I’m very proud of the way they’re doing this. It’s great.
AB: You’re still going to get the great cuisine that Dizzy’s has offered. The gumbo, the fried chicken, the red beans and rice with the hot sausage, our awesome macaroni and cheese, bread pudding, like those staple items are still here. We’re just going to give it to you in a little different way. The goal is to ultimately get back to where we were, but we’re going to move in a safe, timely manner. What is best for the public and what is best for us. The one thing about Dizzy’s, it was a common ground where people come to meet. People come with their family from out of town, with their children. It is like the go to place. And we are going to continue that legacy.
Li’l Dizzy’s is now open.
To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.