The scene: Li’l Dizzy’s Café looks like it has been part of New Orleans’ Treme neighborhood – located just five blocks from the French Quarter – forever. But it’s only 15 years old, which makes it relatively young by New Orleans standards.
Perhaps the reason it feels like such a landmark is its owners’ deep roots in the local restaurant community and their dedication to preserving its Creole-Soul culinary traditions. In any case, Li’l Dizzy’s is a neighborhood institution that is equally popular with couples, families, co-workers on lunch breaks and even local political figures. It’s also a surprisingly good choice for solo travelers.
Exuding homey charm and warmth, it’s the kind of place where every diner is greeted as “hon” or “handsome” by the gregarious staff. It’s one big room with the lunch buffet lineup in the back and lots of tables jammed close together, plus a few more simple metal ones out on the sidewalk.
The decor is evenly divided between paeans to the New Orleans Saints and former President Barack Obama, with a display case full of helmets and numerous framed photos and letters from the former commander-in-chief. The ceiling is simple white acoustic tiles, though a few have been redone as colorful and seemingly random, overhead murals, set around whirling ceiling fans, so do not forget to look up.
Li’l Dizzy’s is open only for breakfast and lunch, which is available until 2 p.m. every day, with a diner-style menu. But it is best known for its all-you-can-eat lunch buffet, which just about everyone orders – and it is the reason to visit.
Reason to visit: Fried chicken, gumbo and the other daily buffet options.
The food: Recognizing newcomers, the staff here does not just sing the accolades of the buffet; they insist on walking first-timers though it, showing off all the dishes, and even helping you serve yourself a bowl of gumbo to start. This is a key part of the charm of Li’l Dizzy’s: the omnipresent warm welcome and cheer. I overheard a waitress reassuring a customer with, “Don’t worry, I got a wheelbarrow; I’m going to roll you out of here when you’re done.”
The buffet is small and simple, with a streamlined salad bar station at one end, the main event in a half dozen adjacent chafing dishes under a hood, and just beyond this, the starters and dessert. The former is one warm dish of rice and another of gumbo, while the finale is usually a warm dish and usually some variety of bread pudding.
The white rice goes in a bowl, the gumbo over it, and this is a highlight not to be skipped. It’s rich and dark and very chunky, with big pieces of meaty andouille sausage, shrimp, and crab still in the shell. The gumbo is excellent, just a little bit spicy, and no one will blame you if you return for seconds (or thirds).
The buffet always features fried chicken, the signature dish and a major reason people come here. It’s also just a little bit spicy, with big meaty pieces that stay juicy beneath the crisp exterior. The food here is not overly hot, but it has a zing, and for those seeking more, there is plenty of Crystal hot sauce to go around.
Some of the other dishes change – though not drastically – with a second meaty entrée, like ribs. Instead of being smoked, Dizzy’s version is very tasty: slow-cooked in a gravy-like sauce until they’re falling off the bone. There’s the mac and cheese, so thick it’s served with an ice cream scoop and so cheesy, you find chunks of still unmelted cheese dotted throughout.
There’s always a soup of the day: some days it’s vegetable, other times chicken noodle or some take on beans, like creamy white bean stew with big chunks of sausage. The veggies on offer also rotate on a regular basis, with mustard greens being a crowd favorite. It’s simple, it’s comfort food, but it’s good and authentically local.
Even the very simple salad bar – basically, a big bowl of iceberg lettuce with smaller bowls of shredded cheese and some hot pepperoncini peppers – has a unique offering that you should absolutely try. It’s a bowl of olive salad, or giardiniera, the unusual relish that makes New Orleans’s signature sandwich, the muffuletta, so special. Here, it’s offered as a salad topping, and it is a great one that really jazzes up even the most basic lettuce.
Despite the temptation of the fried chicken, ribs, mac and cheese, and so on, it’s worth leaving room for the dessert, which is always tasty – especially when it is bread pudding.
Like a lot of people, I usually associate buffets with Las Vegas or Chinese restaurants – rather than as a dining experience to remember. L’il Dizzy’s Café is the exception to that rule. To be able to sample a manageable variety of true New Orleans dishes in such a friendly atmosphere – for under $15, no less – is a culinary travel experience not to be missed.
Pilgrimage-worthy?: No, but if you want a real taste of New Orleans on both your plate and surrounding you for a very reasonable price, head here.
Rating: Yum! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: 1500 Esplanade Ave., New Orleans; 504-569-8997; https://www.lildizzyscafe.net/
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