Ye Olde College Inn
3000 S Carrollton Ave
New Orleans, LA 70118
Napoleon's Rating: ***/*****
Ye Olde College Inn has been around since 1933, and for most of that long lifespan it was a traditional, beloved-if-predictable family restaurant where burgers, fried chicken and hamburger steak ruled the roost. But in 2003 the Blancher family of Rock 'n' Bowl fame bought the College Inn. They slowly started making changes to update the old place, but then a huge change came along after Katrina. The building was wrecked by flooding, so instead of rebuilding it they moved the whole operation to a more sturdy structure just next door. Changes to the menu were just as sweeping, and today only a few holdouts from the old days dot a menu increasingly about local seafood, fresh vegetables and creative spins on comfort food.
The old College Inn was low and rather homey. This new one has exposed brick walls, a soaring ceiling, a large, handsome bar and a great collection of memorabilia and local art, including salvaged mural pieces from the old Rock 'n' Bowl. And if the old College Inn was a bit sleepy, this new place is positively hopping. Since the Blanchers moved their bowling alley/music hall just next door, the whole block has become an entertainment complex and many people make a night of it, with dinner at the College Inn following by music and bowling next door. While the cooking is much more ambitious now, the College Inn still has the personality of a neighborhood joint. It's family-friendly, and also very loud.
Some of the College Inn waiters have been here for years, making the move to the new space and the new format. They are career waiters and their long experience shows in smooth confidence and comfortable hospitality. They know how to handle the crowded room, how to speed up a meal if you're catching a show next door or how to control the pace if you're making a night of it here. Not all the waiters are so skilled, but when you get one of these pros you're really in good hands.
A towering stack of onion rings has long been the starter of choice at the College Inn. It still is, though this classic is just about the last vestige of the old restaurant on the appetizer list. Today, you're looking at roasted duck, served in the style of pulled pork with grilled orange pieces, pecans and a honey barbecue sauce. Or fried green tomatoes and shrimp remoulade made into a Napoleon. Or fried oysters, topped with blue cheese and dressed with blue cheese oil.
You can still find enough of the old favorites at College Inn to ground yourself, but it does take some looking. There is still a first-rate burger and a traditional oyster po-boy, but ordering these means looking past the shrimp remoulade po-boy or the decidedly non-traditional oyster po-boy with havarti cheese and bacon. And you can still find a massive serving of hamburger steak under onion gravy or a breaded veal cutlet that covers the entire plate. But getting these now means missing the daily gulf fish, grilled and topped with lobster sauce, or the huge grilled pork chop with duck and andouille jambalaya or a refreshingly light dish of rice, grilled shrimp and grilled tomato that will leave you in good shape to tackle dessert. A recent special of braised beef short ribs, served with greens spiked with tasso and pumpkin cornbread shows the direction this kitchen is increasingly taking. For the sake of its creative po-boys and first-rate burger, however, I wish the new College Inn served lunch.
Anyone with room left for dessert usually goes straight for the fried bread pudding, a delicious and decadent twist on the standard Creole dessert that few can resist.
There is a full bar with a small draft beer selection but a wine list that goes far beyond the neighborhood restaurant standard. There's nothing too rare or fine on the list, but there's enough depth to actually plan a pairing.
If your memories of Ye Olde College Inn date back a ways, or even just to the pre-Katrina era, you might find the new prices that accompany the new format a bit surprising. Some appetizers creep over $10, most of the po-boys are over that threshold and many of the entrees fall between $15 and $24. Still, considering the vastly increased quality the prices from dish to dish seem appropriate and you can still find bargains with the old school dishes that remain on the menu. Overall, it's a moderately priced restaurant with ambitions that reach higher.
Messing with an old favorite can be risky business in the restaurant world, especially in New Orleans. Yet by making progressive, even drastic changes, the Blanchers have successfully retooled the College Inn for current tastes and the expectations of a new era. In many ways this is a brand new restaurant with a familiar old name, but it still channels the personality of the New Orleans neighborhood restaurant, a personality with enormous local appeal. This is a restaurant going in an exciting direction that has a lot to offer.