Let’s dispense with the bad news first: whether or not you make a reservation at Irene’s for dinner, if you show up any time after, say, 5:30 p.m. (when the restaurant opens), you will wait. And wait. You will wait in a low, plain room next to the bathrooms with scores of other reservation-holders knocking back second and third glasses of wine and shooting hopeful glances at the host every time she makes a move to call out a name.
It also will be loud. While you wait and while you dine, you will have to compete to be heard over the din of other diners in the compact cluster of dining rooms and the piano player banging out standards in the waiting area. In short: don’t show up at Irene’s starving and impatient. Got it?
Now, for the good news: hanging out in that waiting room, glass in hand, can be one of the liveliest social hours in town, and paves the way for a surprisingly affordable and expertly prepared Creole Italian spread served by a seasoned, lovably crusty staff. The inevitable wait at Irene’s is a microcosm of what makes New Orleans tick: a regular local clientele mingling with giddy tourists and conventioneers, all anticipating a good time and a good meal.
The menu covers Italian standards very well. It’s not groundbreaking cuisine, but you get the feeling someone really cares to do it right. There’s a signature roast chicken heavily scented with rosemary, veal in several formats, monstrous pork chops and plenty of pasta. A good rule of thumb? If you can find it on a menu in New Jersey, why bother?
Go with the restaurant’s real specialty: local seafood. Oysters Irene, served baked with pancetta and Romano; paneed oysters and grilled shrimp; Pompano amandine; and crab au gratin so sinfully rich you might want to light a candle for your arteries at nearby St. Louis Cathedral before dinner.
Owner Irene DiPietro comes from a line of Italian restaurateurs in New Orleans, and she presides over the kitchen and tight, shabby-charming dining rooms like it’s an extension of her own home. The restaurant has been packed since the day it opened more than 15 years ago, operating on little more than word-of-mouth. Some would be tempted to parlay such popularity into bigger, snazzier digs, but like the execution of the menu, DiPietro seems to understand there’s no reason to mess with what works. So you have to wait a while. That’s life in the Big Easy. What’s your hurry?
Locals and visitors line up early at Irene's Cuisine for homespun Creole Italian and a loud, lively, quintessentially New Orleans dining atmosphere.