The food's a good reason to eat here but the real star of the Camellia Grill is the floorshow.
This retro little diner with the Greek Revival architecture could be a museum piece. The pink walls were stylish around 1950. The two connected horseshoe-shaped granite counters and 28 bolted to the floor green vinyl topped stools haven’t budged since the place opened in 1946.
A mean customer named Katrina closed it down on August 29, 2005. Its reopening in 2007 was a sign that New Orleans was bent, not broken. Next to the Saints winning a Super Bowl, this was one of the best stories in town. It’s a destination for locals and tourists alike.
The favorites - giant fluffy omelets, cheeseburgers, “freezes,” pecan waffles and pies live up to their accolades. What you don’t expect is that your sense of well-being will be fed while you eat.
After a few minutes, you realize you’re in an interactive environment - not the techie zeroes and ones kind, but the give and take human kind that crackles with repartee between the counter men and customers, the occasional song, and as much banter as you can muster to match the delightful goings on behind the counter.
This morning, Marvin, a slightly built man with the playfulness of a modern day Flip Wilson, is running the show on our side of the Grill. A walking bundle of energy, his wit is sharp as one of the knives next to the grill. He occupies the place as thoroughly as the aromas of ham, toast, and bacon.
Right now he’s running a blue-plate streak of antic, imaginative riffs with a string of customers. Things get quiet for a minute then and a syncopated bom ba da bum bum, bum-bum clatter of a metal spatula on one of the hot grills freezes forks halfway to the customers’ mouths.
There’s Marvin shouting “Aaattentionnnn, everyone!” He leans back theatrically and cups his hands around his mouth for effect. “We have twooooo birthday people in the house…” Seconds later, he leads the 28 bemused patrons in a hearty rendition of Happy Birthday.
One of the six cooks, who’s been efficiently ham and egging, seemingly oblivious to Marvin’s antics, turns from the grill and shouts, “Now you've got to dance,” and damn if this middle-aged guy doesn't get up from his ancient green topped stools and twirl his wife around the narrow space in front of the counter. Cheers erupt. This is New Orleans in full.
There’s Marvin observing to no one in particular, “Monday's the most important day in the week. Get Monday off to a good start and you're gonna have a good week!” Lord knows, he might say the same thing on Tuesday. With his cadenced elocution he might as well be in a pulpit. You’re listening to the gospel according to St. Marvin.
After a few minutes, you feel your core beginning to lighten up, your shoulders let go of that tension you didn't realize was there, and you begin to giggle, for god’s sake.
There are no order pads. Marvin, without looking back at the grill, shouts commands in Camellia lingo. Four cooks in front of a long line of fryers, grills, toasters, blenders, pots and pans are whipping up eggs, frying sausage, pouring pancakes and blending freezes. There’s hardly a clue they’ve heard him but everyone’s order appears within five minutes.
"I think everyone needs a little magic in their lives," Marvin shouts to a Tulane student sitting with her boyfriend.
"That's why we came here!" she fires back. I’m telling you, before long nearly every customer becomes a bit player in this daytime soap opera known as Camellia Grill.
"What's goin' ooonnnnn… as Marvin Gaye used to say," Marvin croons to a new customer. Camellia’s is serving soul food, all right. More than your appetite is being fed.
“What's the yellow liquid in that container,” I inquire. "Sweet-as-silk, richly-satisfying buttahh," Marvin declares. "Be careful. We had to call the butter police about a week ago, told 'em to butterize a customer who used too much of it at (he uses his finger to point as he counts aloud one two three four five six seven eight nine stools from where I sit) stool number nine. They started butterizing the guy at stool ten. We had to save him and point out the guy who was sitting where you are at stool nine."
All this repartee gets perfect strangers feeling like they’re in an exclusive club. That includes the father and mother from New Jersey visiting their daughter sitting next to us.
Ashley and her Tulane roommates were shopping nearby a while ago and stumbled upon the Camellia. Dazzled by the floorshow that came with the food, they decided they'd found the place to eat till they graduate. And the perfect place to take visiting parents. By the time the bill is delivered, we’ve shared tips on other great places to eat.
Tell me the name of another place where you can come in and ask Marvin or one of his cohorts to charge your cell phone and have them do it and sing you a song when you're about to check out. (I saw this, really.)
"This is the place," Marvin playfully sings out, " we give you the love rub, we give your tummy a love rub." Psyches, too, Marvin.
The pink walls are hung with black and white photos of the grill's history. Most of them are of the waiters, past and present, who’ve worked the Camellia Grill for decades. Marvin’s been there since 1992.
Later, a native New Orleanian tells us that Henry Thervalon worked at Camellia Grill for nearly fifty years. His son was a superior court judge, but Henry was better known. "When they sold T-shirts, they charged $10 more when Henry signed one," he said.
I tell you, I would have paid five bucks more for my pecan waffle and my companion’s out of this world fluffy sausage and cheese omelet if Marvin had signed them.
There are mountains of great food served around this town. There’s only one place you leave with a lighter heart and an ample serving of what makes New Orleans one of the special places on this good earth. Its name is the Camellia Grill.
Marvin Day at right in group photos above