For decades, Johnny’s Restaurant was a New Orleans favorite. Today, its Rampart Street site is empty

The photo in the Library of Congress is labeled simply enough. Too simply to be useful, in fact.

“Old building. New Orleans, Louisiana,” it reads. And that’s it. No address, no street name, no context.

The photo to which that scant description is attached – taken in August 1940 by Depression-era photographer Marion Post Wolcott – is, indeed, of an old building. That much is clear.

Just as clear is that it is in New Orleans, thanks to the intricate, lace-like cast-iron railings wrapping around its second-floor gallery.

Also helping establish its New Orleans bona fides are the advertising signs for Dixie 45 beer, which share space with a riot of other ads, hawking everything from Old Quaker bourbon and Chesterfield cigarettes to 7 Up and Coca-Cola.

When it comes to identifying the building, however, the most helpful of the signs is the 10-foot illuminated arrow pointing to the main entrance. “Johnny’s,” it screams, beckoning patrons to the steaks and seafood therein.

Johnny’s Restaurant, a then-fledgling bar and restaurant, was operated by entrepreneur John M. Marcev Sr. and his wife, Frances, for more than 35 years in the 179-year-old building at 1000 N. Rampart St.

In that time, Johnny’s would become a local hotspot, noted for its seafood, its “sizzling steaks” and its turkey poulette, a once-popular New Orleans dish that has since faded into near-extinction.

Just as Johnny’s has.

Meet John M. Marcev Sr.

Born around 1903 on the tiny island of Molat, off the coast of Croatia – then Yugoslavia – Marcev left for America in 1918, settling in New Orleans around 1920.

Shortly after his arrival, he went into business with Joseph Baricev to open the Auditorium restaurant at 700 N. Rampart, a 24-hour restaurant catering to the crowds attending Carnival balls and other functions at the then-new Municipal Auditorium across the street.

The menu there included sandwiches and all kinds of local seafood. That notably included oysters, the cultivation of which even then had already long been associated with Louisiana’s Croat community by virtue of their familiarity with the process back home.

(John M. Marcev Sr. is not to be confused with John P. Marcev Sr., another Croat immigrant who ran the Marble Hall Branch Restaurant during the same era. Its specialty: oyster loaves.)

By May 1934, John M. Marcev had decided to strike out on his own, announcing the opening of Johnny’s Restaurant at 1000 N. Rampart.

The two-story masonry building occupying that site dates to about 1844, according to The Historic New Orleans Collection’s Collins C. Diboll Vieux Carré Digital Survey, and originally was divided into three units, which explains the multiple first-floor entrances.

The intricate railings were added to the second-floor gallery later in the 19th century. Almost as striking is the neat row of eight full-length, square-headed doors and windows that open out onto it on the building’s Rampart Street side.

A local institution was born.

A taste of turkey poulette

That 1940 photo of Johnny’s – the one in which the building is covered with advertising placards – was taken fairly early in the restaurant’s existence, after just six years or so. By 1952, Marcev had added a certain level of polish, removing the advertisements, painting the exterior white, adding air-conditioning and generally classing the place up.

With seating for as many as 175, it was a frequent meeting and banquet hall for various civic and social groups, as well as a locale for wedding receptions. Its bar, open 24 hours a day, was popular among a different sort of clientele.

Just as much a draw for many: the congenial Johnny, who prided himself on his hospitality.

Steak, seafood and sandwiches were menu mainstays at Johnny’s, but by the 1950s, it was advertising specialties including stuffed artichokes, spaghetti with clam sauce and one of old New Orleans’ favorite ways to repurpose leftover poultry: turkey poulette. (Say it like a local: “turkey poo-lay.”)

The Roosevelt Hotel’s restaurant is most often associated with that dish, which is a simple but flavorful open-faced sandwich topped with sliced turkey and bacon, with a cream sauce spooned over the top. Once upon a time, it was popular enough to generate lines outside the door of the hotel restaurant on the day after Thanksgiving, according to the website of Chef John Folse.

The version served at Johnny’s, however, left a particular impression on former Times-Picayune restaurant critic Gene Bourg.

“Turkey poulette was available at a few other restaurants,” Bourg wrote in 1989. “… But the turkey poulette at Johnny’s was a hot item in more ways than one. It was a big seller, and it arrived still bubbling from the broiler, in an oven-proof plate. On top was a rich velouté sauce with cheese, lightly gratineed, blanketing fresh slices of turkey breast.

“If memory can be relied upon …. the turkey slices sat on slices of bread, and they and their marvelous, eggy sauce warmed up a good many souls on a good many damp and chilly New Orleans night.”

End of an era

Alas, all good things, they say, must come to an end. That includes Johnny’s.

By the early 1970s, Marcev was ready to retire. Johnny’s closed with little fanfare.

The building that housed it for so many years at the corner of North Rampart and St. Philip streets has gone through a number of tenants since. It’s been an art gallery. It’s been a community center. It’s been a performance space.

Today, it is empty, its façade serving as a canvas for graffiti artists as it awaits its next chapter.

Sources: The Times-Picayune archives; Library of Congress; The Historic New Orleans Collection’s Collins C. Diboll Vieux Carré Digital Survey; jfolse.com.

Do you know of a New Orleans building worth profiling in this column, or just curious about one? Contact Mike Scott at [email protected]

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