In October 1973, the six-year marriage of Elvis and Priscilla ended in divorce, President Richard Nixon named Gerald Ford to the vice presidency (and the first of the Watergate tapes was released; oh, what a mess), and a couple of guys opened a little place called the Half Shell at the northwest corner of Poplar and Mendenhall.
Yes, the northwest corner, where the Belmont is today. It was 10 years later, in 1983 (when Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson released “Say, Say, Say,” and now you’ve got a feel for the time line), when the restaurant picked up and moved catty-corner, to its current location at the southeast corner.
The menu has evolved over the years, and today it’s a big one, still heavy on seafood but punctuated with steaks, chicken, sandwiches, salads and so on. There’s a good selection of brunch items, and that seems a good place to dive in.
At the Half Shell, you can get your eggs in an omelet or over shrimp and grits, but it’s the dishes that have names in them that you want: Benedict, Oscar, Sardou, and so on. The eggs Hussarde (invented at Brennan’s in New Orleans and likely named after a family friend) are served on an English muffin, not the traditional Holland rusk, but it was a gem of a dish nonetheless.
Eggs were poached perfectly, with set whites and runny yolks. They sat on a generous layer of sliced ham and tomatoes and a pool of marchand du vin sauce, though a milder version of the sauce than you might get with, say, a steak. A Hollandaise topped the eggs, so this is definitely a saucy dish. I like a sauce; if you don’t, pick a different egg dish.
The eggs Sardou also starts with an English muffin, topped with artichoke bottoms, creamed spinach and a pair of poached eggs. Hollandaise, the buttery lemon sauce that pulls together all manner of egg and muffin dishes, is here too.
You’ll also find the hollandaise in the Crescent City crepes, also delicious. The crepe — we tried the Jazz Man, with crab, mushrooms and spinach — is eggy, more like a very, very thin omelet wrapped around filling. The Bourbon Street crepe employs Bearnaise instead of Hollandaise and replaces the crab with fried oysters. It seems unlikely you’d go wrong with that, either.
The interior hasn’t changed much (if it’s changed at all) since the move, but it’s held up well, and it’s still the dark, cozy and welcoming spot it’s always been. Strands of Christmas lights lend a festive touch, and it’s a bustling place that is, at its core, just friendly. That the late Thomas Boggs was an owner (his daughter, Lauren McHugh, is a co-owner today) could’ve contributed to that as his restaurants — think Huey’s — have that same sit-a-spell, have-a-drink vibe.
Danny Sumrall, also a co-owner (along with chef Darrell Smith), says it happened like this in 1997.
“Thomas came to me and said, ‘Hey, do you think you might want to go in on the Half Shell?’ and I said ‘Well, sure, I’ll look at it.’”
They purchased it from Arnie Pittman, one of the original owners. “These were guys who liked to party and have a good time, and they wanted a place they could call home,” Sumrall said.
The legacy has held. The Half Shell still stays open until 3 a.m. six days a week (it closes at 2 a.m. on Sunday), and the kitchen is open until an hour before the bar closes. The bar is in the center of the restaurant, with booths and tables scattered around it, but the food is truly good. There are plenty of appetizers, little noshes for drinkers such as fried mushrooms, cheese dip and so on, but there are also fried oyster sliders, and the oysters Bienville and Rockefeller are quite good.
Our lunch was unexceptional. We dined on a Friday and had the catfish special and a Monte Cristo sandwich, both only OK. But brunch was very good, and so was dinner.
The Voodoo dishes — you can choose catfish or salmon, steak, chicken or shrimp — are just downright delicious. A spicy stuffing, full of shrimp and Cajun spice, is the start for each of these dishes. The protein goes on top, and a basil beurre blanc pools over. Steamed broccoli comes as a side, but ask for the Italian spinach. It’s an excellent version, not too creamy, not too garlicky or too cheesy. It’s spinachy, just as it should be. Onion rings are also very good.
Toulouse Famous blackened redfish is a large piece of fish on a bed of rice pilaf, topped with maque choux (a corn relish) and served with drawn butter and a side dish. You couldn’t ask for more for $20.
The food isn’t fancy, but it’s well-prepared, it tastes good, and it’s the kind of meal that makes people comfortable: A protein, a sauce, a side or two and a piece of bread.
It’s worked for 40 years.
Address: 688 S. Mendenhall.
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday (bar closes at 2 a.m.)
Reviewer’s choice: Voodoo shrimp ($14.25); eggs Hussarde ($9.95); Toulouse Famous blackened redfish ($19.95). Sautéed mushrooms, Italian spinach and onion rings are all good sides.
Alcohol: Full bar.