“We wanted to be a high-end Cracker Barrel.”
The French Market & Tavern in Locust Grove, one part restaurant, one part home decor and gift store, does, in many ways, resemble the well-known chain country store and homestyle eatery.
Owners Rick and Lauren Weaver originally purchased the old Gardner Hardware store in Locust Grove as an investment property. Lauren Weaver, with a passion for decorating, hoped to convert the 1906 building into a home and garden design boutique, while her husband envisioned it as a po’ boy shop. During the renovation, the two reached a compromise, and the French Market & Tavern was born, a handsomely decorated 5,000-square-foot space with tables made from the building’s original heart-of-pine flooring.
As the vision for the building expanded, so did the menu, venturing well beyond po’ boys. Rick Weaver, a New Orleans native and now full-time employee of a software company, comes from a line of chefs. He drew upon his experiences growing up in the restaurant industry to write recipes for what the restaurant’s website calls “authentic New Orleans cuisine.”
According to Rick Weaver, after having several bigger-name chefs run the kitchen, he switched tactics and promoted his line cook to kitchen manager to oversee operations and execution. He didn’t want the chef to be the focal point of the restaurant. He says, “It’s not about this guy. It’s about the ambience and the experience.” Weaver mentored his new kitchen manager, taking him on his first trip to New Orleans for a 36-hour food-fest to experience the food he would cook.
Weaver confessed that it was “a huge risk to open a restaurant in Locust Grove with specialty cuisine.” He’s had to alter his original vision based on the target market (locals), dialing back the spice level and adding other Southern staples to the menu.
Despite the 36 hours of research, some dishes don’t resonate with traditional New Orleans-inspired fare. Friends who joined us on one visit, both native New Orleanians, bristled at the pulled chicken and andouille gumbo ($5). Thin and bitter like strong coffee, the pitch-black gumbo tastes (and looks) like the Jailhouse Breakout Stout ($5) we drank in the absence of Abita beer, the New Orleans classic. We pined for the layered flavors and depth of more traditional gumbos.
The gumbo makes up one-third of the Trinity ($17). Weaver’s version of etouffee, which he says is creamier than most, and unseasoned red beans and rice share the cafeteria-style tin tray lined in black-and-white checkered paper with the gumbo. Pea-size lumps of the blond roux used for the crawfish (a loose term, we had to hunt for those tiny tails) etouffee sit suspended in a pasty glue, the French Market & Tavern’s rendition of yet another dish on which many New Orleans chefs hang their toques.
As can be the case in restaurants with menus executed by folks who didn’t write them, I suspect a disconnect between the recipes and the execution. Weaver admits this is true for the beignets ($4.95), acknowledging their dense gummy interior. He says, “The only way we can pull those off is when I’m here.”
The kitchen has more luck (hallelujah!) with its spin on a catfish po’ boy ($10.95). A large, well-seasoned cornmeal-battered fillet sits on an open-faced Leidenheimer French bread bun. The restaurant’s signature spicy jalapeno coleslaw brings a sweet heat to the salty-battered fish. Granted, you might struggle to fold the bulging sandwich halves together, but go for it, trailing creamy coleslaw juice and all.
While the French Market & Tavern has some recipes to work through, it’s clear that it knows its market. On each of my visits, locals filled the restaurant, once sandwiching my table between a group of 20-plus office workers celebrating a birthday and a ten-top engaged in a Bible study session.
Chef-driven restaurants may be the trend these days, but Rick Weaver wanted to shift the focus to the ambience and experience. He’s created a place where folks enjoy whole-restaurant serenades to those celebrating birthdays or Saturday-night singalongs to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” He clearly knows his market in Locust Grove, a place that appreciates a high-end Cracker Barrel.French Market & Tavern 3840 Ga. 42, Locust Grove. 770-914-9312 Food: Restaurant/gift boutique serving New Orleans-inspired cuisine Service: Friendly enough, but untrained and unlikely to refill beverages Best dishes: Catfish po’ boy Vegetarian selections: Appetizers, salads, pasta Credit cards: All major Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays Children: Yes Parking: A few parallel parking spots outside restaurant, a gravel lot across a busy street or spots behind the building Reservations: Yes Wheelchair access: Yes Smoking: No Noise level: Moderate to high Patio: Yes, in the rear Takeout: Yes