COVINGTON, LA - We follow the arrow-straight causeway that crosses Lake Pontchartrain — the longest bridge of its kind in the world — until it drifts off into this sleepy bedroom community located about an hour north of New Orleans.
The neatly kept streets of this All-America town, dominated by large dollhouse homes with wraparound porches, are almost deserted when we arrive around noon. Residents have taken refuge from the scorching summer heat in Covington’s acclaimed restaurants, most of which are gathered in its lovely Historic District.
We push open the door of one of them, the Ristorante Del Porto, at the corner of East Boston and New Hampshire streets, and are instantly overwhelmed by the wonderful aromas floating though the stylish room owned and operated by the husband and wife chef team of David and Torre Solazzo.
Known for its homemade pastas and the chefs’ farm-to-table approach to cooking, Ristorante Del Porto is one of several posh restaurants that have opened in Covington over the past decade. Many, including this one, are governed by some of America’s brightest young chefs; the Solazzos, for example, are three-time James Beard Award nominees.
Covington’s new chefs have certainly injected a youthful vibe into this historic town, which was established in 1813 under the name Wharton.
Renee Kientz and Christina Cooper, two delightful tourist representatives of St. Tammany Parish — the Northshore county in where Covington is located — invite us to join them for lunch and fill us up with lots of facts about this tiny hamlet that has become an important weekend escape for many New Orleanians.
Left: David and Torre Solazzo, owners of Ristorante Del Porto, have injected new life into old Covington. Middle: Roy Blaum, owner of the Knife and Archery shop, makes visitors feel at home. Right: The Covington Brewhouse is one of the craft shops that is doing a booming business.
They tell us Covington started out as a commercial hub where farmers and their ox-drawn carts once ruled the roads. The ox lots, where the farmers would park their beasts and carts, created the town’s unique “squares-within-squares” design — in 1981 that earned Covington a place on the country’s National Register of Historic Places.
Interestingly, Kientz tells me the migration of chefs into Covington can be directly traced back to 2005 and Hurricane Katrina, the devastating natural disaster that had such dire consequences for New Orleans and its neighbouring communities.
“Many of the chefs who now own restaurants here were once employed at some of New Orleans’ top restaurants (including the famed Brennan’s) and they were hoping to get rehired. But because the cleanup after Katrina took so long, and their previous restaurants stayed closed longer than expected, the chefs took a chance and opened up their own dining rooms here,” Kientz tells me.
It’s a gamble that paid off handsomely for both the chefs and Covington — the town’s upscale dining establishments are now attracting lots of tourists who are treated to exceptional regional dishes presented with some innovative local twists.
Over plates of perfectly prepared veal meatballs and artisan spaghetti, featuring lots of farm fresh ingredients — the summer tomatoes are the sweetest we’ve ever tasted — the tourism pair encourage us to explore Covington’s Historic District and meet some of residents before we check into the Southern Hotel, located directly across the street from Ristorante Del Porto.
The charming Southern Hotel — a distinctive red brick Mission-style building which dates back to 1907 — recently underwent an $8 million (U.S.) renovation, the results of which are stunning. It’s also home to another of Covington’s most talked about restaurants, Oxlot 9.
“I’ll make a reservation at Oxlot 9 for you this evening,” says Cooper.
Who am I to argue?
Covington exudes lots of character, and, as we quickly discover during our walk around town, it has lots of characters, too. The top of that list is occupied by Roy Blaum, owner of Roy’s Knife and Archery shop on North Columbia St., where many of the town’s oldest retail shops are located.
The delightful Blaum, who was born in New Orleans, opened his shop 38 years ago and has seen Covington go through many changes over the years. He especially likes this phase.
Left: H.J. Smith General Store is a fixture in Covington but is more museum than retail outlet. Right: Lola is one of the high-end restaurants that have put Covington on the culinary map.
“The restaurants has certainly improved,” he tells me in a southern draw as sweet as Ristorante Del Porto’s tomatoes.
His dusty old shop — whose shelves are filled with guns, knives and lovely wood carvings made my Roy’s aging hands — looks like a cyclone just passed through, but the stoic Blaum appears unfazed by my (humorous) comment about the shop’s disheveled appearance.
“I order them (merchandise), I pay for them and I know where everything is at,” he tells me from behind the counter in the 100-year-old building — the second-oldest on the block — in which his store resides.
Even though Roy is a fountain of Covington information, he encourages me to “go across the street to the H.J. Smith & Sons General Store to get a real feel for Covington.
H.J. Smith’s, which has been around since 1876, is still a functioning hardware store but also features a museum that displays plenty of Covington memorabilia, like a 1920s gas pump, a 40-metre-long cypress dugout boat, a cast iron casket and lots of rusting farming tools.
Many of the older stores along North Columbia have been turned into chic art shops, which reflect the upscale lifestyle of some of Covington’s newest residents.
It comes as no surprise to foodies that Covington is a culinary hotbed. Louisiana’s Northshore, you see, has produced some very famous chefs over the years — none more so than John Besh, the Northshore native and rock star chef of New Orleans who now owns several of the Big Easy’s most revered dining establishments.
But, as we find out when we stumble upon the Covington Brewhouse on East Lockwood St., the Northshore is quickly becoming famous nationally for its burgeoning microbrewing industry, as well.
St. Tammany Parish is home to the most microbreweries in Louisiana — Covington Brewhouse, Chafunkta Brewing and Abita Brewery, the 14th largest of its kind in the United States.
Brew master Brian Broussard talks passionately about his brew but scoffs when I compare his craft to that of a vintner.
“There’s only a few kinds of wines but there’s lots of varieties of beer,” he tells me while I sample some of his company’s better known labels — Pontchartrain Pilsner, Electric Porter, Blackened Voodoo and Bayou Bock among them.
The likeable Broussard tells me craft beers appeal to the younger set, even though they cost more.
“People want variety in their beers and craft breweries like ours offer them just that,” says Broussard, whose labels cost about $2 more than traditional beers.
“We sell about 400 barrels a year and micro breweries account for about 20 per cent of all beer sales in the United States, and those numbers are steadily growing each year,” says the young man who plays bass with a popular local band called Cowboy Mouth on weekends.
We finally make our way back to the Southern Hotel and, after checking into the stylish establishment with the rich history, we rest for a while in one of the 40 beautifully appointed rooms that come with every modern convenience known to today’s upscale traveller.
Not surprising since the Southern Hotel has always been at the forefront of change. When it opened in 1907, for instance, it offered guests hot water, electric lighting and carpeting, something unheard of back then.
The hotel’s public areas are adorned with local artwork, thus reflecting Covington’s role as the Northshore’s new artistic hub. Its cozy Cypress Bar, which looks out on the property’s lovely garden, is a good place to pass the time while enjoying some of the room’s signature southern cocktails.
The relaxing French bistro-style Oxlot 9 is located in the Southern Hotel’s west wing and is one of the most talked about restaurants in all of Louisiana. Governed by Chef Jeff Hansell, Oxlot 9 has earned rave reviews from customers and critics alike for its southern-inspired menu that features some truly amazing regional fare, like fried frogs legs in hot sauce butter, oyster patties, panfried stuffed rabbit and freshly caught Gulf seafood.
Hansell says he came upon the Southern Hotel during its refurbishment while driving through Covington and knew straight away “this is where I wanted to open my restaurant and live.”
His wife agreed and the rest is history.
Covington, you see, is not easy to leave.
Covington is a 45 minute drive from New Orleans International Airport. / Places we recommend you eat in Covington: Oxlot 9, www.oxlot9.com; Ristorante Del Porto, www.delportoristorante.com; Lola, www.lolacovington.com / For rates and more about the Southern Hotel, go to www.southernhotel.com / For more on what to do in Covington, St. Tammany Parish and the rest of Louisiana’s Northshore, go to www.louisiananorthshore.com / Louisiana Tourism’s website is one of the best in the business and offers travellers lots of fascinating details and options about the state. Go to www.louisianatravel.com for more information. / Air Canada offers direct flights to New Orleans from Toronto.