Landmark New Orleans eatery back in business

Katrina Diner
Waiter Melvin Henderson serves some cheese fries to a customer at the Camellia Grill diner as it opens for business almost 20 months after Hurricane Katrina closed the popular New Orleans restaurant. The diner opened in 1946 and for generations was know for its hamburgers, omelets and pecan waffles. Bill Haber / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — Bow-tied waiters are dishing up bacon-and-cheese omelets and pecan waffles once again at the venerable Camellia Grill, nearly 20 months after it was closed when the city fled Hurricane Katrina.

The icon's return on Saturday was seen as another sign of hope in New Orleans' slow recovery.

"This is a happy day," said 87-year-old Harry Tervalon, a head waiter until his retirement in the 1990s. He shared stories of the people he served over the years, including Yankees baseball player Bobby Brown.

The restaurant had no damage from the storm but was in desperate need of updates, and its longtime owner thought it was the right time to find someone else to take over.

Third-generation owner Mike Schwartz, who relocated with his family to Mississippi, interviewed for months before deciding the next owner would be 45-year-old Hicham Khodr.

Khodr, who assumed ownership in August 2006, called the opportunity "a dream come true." He has lived in New Orleans for more than 20 years and the Camellia Grill has always been one of his favorite eateries, he said.

Fresh coat of paint
Khodr gave the diner a fresh coat of white paint on the outside, and updated the plumbing and kitchen facilities inside. He also put in new marble countertops for the customers, but kept just about everything else the same.

"They even kept the Mickey Mouse clock," Tervalon said. His wife, Elodie, gave the clock to the restaurant in the early 1980s.

Neighbors and city officials who frequented the diner before Katrina hugged and swapped stories at a party Friday, when spots at the counter were auctioned off for charity.

Some passers-by danced as the Storyville Stompers jazz band performed on the sidewalk, across Carrollton Avenue from the tracks of the still-closed uptown streetcar line.

Unchanging menu
The diner opened in 1946 and for generations has been known for its hamburgers, omelets and pecan waffles. Even though the ownership has changed, the menu hasn't.

Drivers passing by Friday honked their horns and waved to the small crowd gathered outside the diner for the ribbon-cutting.

"I love to see the old places come back," said Flora Radding, who lives nearby. Radding said she's eaten at Camellia Grill countless times and missed the atmosphere and great wait staff.

"It was always very welcoming and very real, very local," she said. "It's New Orleans."