NEW ORLEANS -- Drago Cvitanovich, the Croatian immigrant who became patriarch of the family that expanded the oyster and seafood restaurant empire he began nearly 50 years ago, died Saturday. He was 94.
Drago's Restaurant announced the news in a Facebook post. "Drago Cvitanovich, founder of Drago's Seafood Restaurant, passed away peacefully today while surrounded by his loving family. He lived 94 glorious years. We will miss him dearly."
Cvitanovich had been in failing health for some time and was no longer a regular at the Metairie restaurant which bears his name, but his impact was still felt. He turned over day-to-day operations to his wife of 59 years, Klara, and son Tommy, who reinvigorated the restaurant with the invention of charbroiled oysters. In recent years, the grilled oysters with a garlic butter sauce became Drago’s signature, a dish known and replicated all over town.
In recent years, Cvitanovich was still greeting customers from his perch on a stool at the bar of the Metairie restaurant, and singing "Happy Birzzday" to those celebrating their birthday at the restaurant.
Drago and Klara Cvitanovich opened their restaurant in Metairie’s Fat City neighborhood in 1969, after Drago spent several years working for his sister and brother-in-law, named Drago Batinich. He operated a restaurant, also called Drago’s, on Harrison Avenue in Lakeview. Cvitanovich began working there, tending bar and shucking oysters. When he opened his own restaurant in Metairie, his wife Klara would work during the day at D.H. Holmes as a travel agent, then come to the restaurant at night to pitch in.
For the restaurant, Cvitanovich cultivated relationships with the hundreds of other Yugoslav immigrants who had settled in south Louisiana at that time and made their living in the fishing, shrimping and oyster industry. Cvitanovich’s restaurant became well-known for the quality of its seafood, and oysters in particular.
“Our Louisiana oysters are a special food. You taste something really special in those oysters,” Cvitanovich said in his unmistakable accent, in a 2011 interview with WWL-TV’s Bill Capo.
“Drago handled that end of the business personally, drawing on his contacts with the oystermen in Empire and thereabouts,” said WWL Radio restaurant critic Tom Fitzmorris. “In his prime, he was the fastest oyster shucker you ever saw, and kept up a conversation all the while he did it.”
Cvitanovich was born in 1922 in Yugoslavia, now Croatia, and fled the communist rule of his homeland after World War II. He fled to Germany and worked as a civilian employee of the U.S. Army. Later, Cvitanovich moved to Canada and worked for a lumber company. It was there that he met young Klara Buconic. When they both visited New Orleans in 1958, the relationship blossomed. They married three weeks later.
“We came to New Orleans in 1961 with two suitcases, two babies and about $2,000 in our pockets,” she said. “To be able to achieve what we have just proves the American dream,” Klara Cvitanovich told New Orleans Advocate food writer Ian McNulty in 2014.
After moving to New Orleans, Drago and Klara settled in Lakeview and began raising their two sons, Tommy and Dr. Gerry Cvitanovich, the Jefferson Parish coroner.
“My favorite line is that I majored in ‘Daddy’ and I graduated in ‘Daddy’ and I knew I wanted to be like my father and be a restaurateur,” Tommy Cvitanovich said.
"I think I was nine years old, starting to work in the restaurant,” his brother Gerry said in an interview with Bill Capo last year. “We'd go after school. We'd bus tables, open oysters, take out the trash, seat people, do whatever needed to be done."
Under Tommy Cvitanovich’s leadership, the family expanded their culinary corporation in recent years to include restaurants in the Hilton New Orleans Riverside Hotel and in Jackson, Mississippi, employing more than 400 people. The Hilton location has become the international hotel chain’s highest grossing restaurant out of all their properties worldwide.
In addition to feeding thousands of customers at their restaurants over the years, the Cvitanoviches are known as philanthropists and humanitarians. In the days after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the family and restaurant staff served more than 80,000 free meals to first responders and those affected by Katrina. In 2012, when Drago turned 90 years old, the family celebrated by turning over all of the restaurant’s proceeds for a day (more than $100,000) to the St. Bernard Project, the nonprofit group founded in 2006 to rebuild homes affected by disaster. The next year, to mark Drago’s 91st birthday, the restaurant donated 100 percent of sales proceeds to the Second Harvest Food Bank. In 2007, when the family opened Drago's in the Hilton hotel, the Cvitanoviches celebrated Drago's 85th birthday by raising more than $40,000 for the New Orleans Police Department's 8th District.
In 2013, Drago and Klara Cvitanovich were inducted into the Louisiana Restaurant Association Hall of Fame. In 2014, Drago and Klara Cvitanovich received the Ella Brennan Lifetime Achievement Award from the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience, recognizing a "lifetime commitment to the hospitality industry." The Louisiana Hospitality Foundation also created an award honoring his legacy, the Drago Cvitanovich Award for Outstanding Philanthropy by an Entrepreneur.
In 1995, Drago reigned as king of the Krewe of Argus, riding in its Fat Tuesday parade. His sons and granddaughter later also reigned as Argus royalty.
In addition to his wife and sons, Cvitanovich is survived by 8 grandchildren.
Relatives and friends of the family are invited to attend a visitation at Lake Lawn Metairie Funeral Home, 5100 Pontchartrain Blvd., New Orleans, LA 70124 on Monday, Feb. 6 from 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Visitation will resume 10:00 AM Tuesday morning, Feb. 7 at St. Clement of Rome Church, 3978 West Esplanade Ave., Metairie, LA 70002 with a funeral mass following at 12:30 p.m.
Burial will take place in the Lake Lawn Park Cemetery.
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to: Drago's Foundation, 3232 North Arnoult Road, Metairie, LA 70002. Contributions will be distributed to the Alzheimer's Foundation, Louisiana Restaurant Association Education Foundation, Louisiana Hospitality Foundation, Sunshine Kids, Jesuit High School, Mt. Carmel Academy, Christian Brothers School and St. Clement of Rome and Catholic Charities.