Deep in the Ninth Ward sits the local institution Jack Dempsey’s, an island of consistency in a sea of change…
Occupation: Attorney at Law, Tour Guide, Gentleman of Questionable Reputation.
You can find him: Drinking an Abita Amber on Frenchman Street, Zydeco dancing in your neighborhood bar, wearing better clothes than you.
For roughly three years, I lived around the corner from Jack Dempsey’s. It sat there on Poland Avenue, a little white cottage with no windows, no way to see if they were open unless you walked up and read the hours of operation. Over the years, I’ve found something comforting about the consistency of the place. New restaurants came in on Chartres and St. Claude. Another standby of mine, The Joint, moved a few blocks over from its concrete bunker on the other side of Poland Avenue. But Jack Dempsey’s simply sat there, marking time, always ready to receive me whenever I finally passed through its doors.
It seems entirely appropriate that when I finally made my way there, it would be with my friend and fellow tour guide Keith Hurtt. Not just for proximity (he lives within a block of the place), but because few people seem to exemplify the staying power of the New Orleans character more than Keith. A lifelong resident of the city, a former attorney with a stint as a public defender on the city payroll, he seems to know every corner, every restaurant, every person on the street. I think of myself as a pretty sociable person, but Keith puts me to shame. A life moving through every strata of New Orleans society gives him the air of a man who has seen everything. He pops up seemingly everywhere in town, an Abita Amber conspicuously attached to his right hand.
This town produces many great artists and musicians, and an overflow of brilliant cooks and corrupt public officials. But what New Orleans produces most readily, and most uniquely, is characters. The carriage driver with the laugh everyone knows. The homeless man on Jackson Square with the golf club. The fruit seller with the loudspeaker mounted on his pickup truck. Like signposts that read YOU ARE HERE, they move through the city, stitching it together with a thread of familiarity.
Keith and I made for Jack Dempsey’s just before sunset. It’s a friendly place, with the low key air of a neighborhood sports bar. The waitress called us “sweetheart,” brought us a cold draft beer (for Keith) and a cold Barq’s root beer (for me), and a plate of onion rings roughly the size of Indianapolis.
You should see the large order.
You come to Jack Dempsey’s for steak and for seafood. And if you’re really serious like me, you go for the half and half: a choice of two dishes—shrimp, oysters, frog legs, soft shell crab, catfish, redfish—along with a side. I went for the frog legs and shrimp and mac and cheese. Keith opted for the oyster po- boy. The portions are massive, and you should get your conversation in early, because it’s going to be nap time by the time you finish.
Keith and I have been working together for over two years, but like a lot of people I know in New Orleans, getting to know him has been a process. Not because either one of us lacks a desire to communicate, but because New Orleans presents such an abundance of options in company, food, entertainment, and all the rest of it. It can be hard to connect regularly with everyone you want to connect with, and it’s usually an unexpected encounter that allows you to finally get to know someone you have known as an acquaintance for years.
Perhaps that’s why it’s so special when you finally start to feel like a fixture in this city. When you can walk down the street and people call out to you, specifically you, in this sea of excess, this always transient population, it makes you feel you’ve stumbled on the keys to the kingdom. When the Dixie Brewery shut down after Hurricane Katrina, Keith hunted down every bar that had an available bottle of his favorite beverage. Bars began saving their final Dixie Beer specifically for him. In an article published in the Gambit in 2007, Keith talks about the waiter at the Napoleon House who raced across the room to bring him the last bottle of beer everyone thought was gone for good. You’re in a special place when things like that happen to you.
Staying power means a lot in this town. As history sweeps over this city, the places and people that stake their claim to the territory, come hell or high water, demand respect. We’re not going anywhere, they seem to say. We’ll be right here, even if it takes you half your life to find us.
Jack Dempsey’s is located at 738 Poland Avenue. They are open on Tuesday from 11 a.m. til 2 p.m., Wednesdays and Thursday from 11-8, Friday from 11-9, and Saturday from noon til 9 p.m. They are closed on Sundays and Mondays. Deal with it.