The Long Debut — What’s it like to open a restaurant in a pandemic? Tales of delay, delirium and deliverance from Lafayette’s newest dining establishments. This is the second in a three-part series.
Mama Reta knows how to manifest her dreams. Working out of a closet office at a Georgia Gulf chemical plant some 15 years ago, Reta Durgan would find herself meditating during the quiet morning hours. That’s when she remembers first hearing a voice from within, asking directly: “Why don’t you open your own restaurant?”
Durgan soon filled a notebook of ideas for her restaurant — what she would do, and how she would do it. She registered the name Mama Reta’s Kitchen with the state. She researched real estate and funding options. She bought equipment that went into storage. Long before locking down a space for her business, she put up a billboard sign in her lot along the Interstate proclaiming, “Mama Reta’s Kitchen Coming Soon.”
Today, six years after Mama Reta’s opened, Durgan finds herself at another crossroads following Hurricane Laura’s devastation of Lake Charles five months ago. Fate, and family, led her to Lafayette, and she has now set up shop — temporarily at least — at a small Johnston Street location, with a drive-through, south of the Acadiana Mall near W. Broussard Road. Fellow Lake Charles restaurateur Dave Evans, steered by his inner compass, was similarly drawn to Lafayette. The 46-year-old is now preparing to open a second location of his flagship Luna Bar & Grill on Jefferson Street in Downtown Lafayette, in the space that was last open as V Bar. Both Durgan and Evans have spent a lifetime in the service industry, and while the pandemic has derailed and slowed many in the business, both maintain a steadfast confidence in their purpose.
“This is all I’ve ever known,” Evans says. “It’s all I know how to do.”
His natural touch has been evident in Lake Charles, where Luna has been a success from its launch in 2004. Pandemic aside, service at Luna has hardly slowed, especially since the popular Lake Charles restaurant and live music venue re-opened in late October following two months of closure due to Hurricane Laura.
Encouraged by friends, Evans has been eyeing a move to Lafayette for the past five years. In 2019, when the space at 533 Jefferson St. came up for lease, he felt an instant connection. The historic brick building features a similar layout to his Lake Charles location, and through extensive renovations, Evans has made it more so. A black tiled ceiling with rows of overhead globe lanterns, vintage hanging bulbs and sputnik style chandeliers create a spacious, industrial feel. More than 100 live concert posters from bands like Widespread Panic, My Morning Jacket and Wilco will line the brick walls, set off by whimsical, brightly colored art by muralist Jeremy Price. A kitchen, with a walk-in cooler and freezer, now anchors the rear of the building, and Evans is in the process of transforming a previously neglected outdoor space into an inviting bricked courtyard with patio string lights over al fresco dining tables, a pergola stage to host live music, and a gated back entrance into the Vermilion Street parking garage. “It feels right in here,” Evans says. “I knew this could be Luna.”
Ever since he began exploring Lafayette, there have been uncanny connections. This culminated in 2019, when Evans, who learned in his 20s he was adopted at birth, finally tracked down his biological family to the area through testing from the DNA ancestry company 23andMe. He first found his aunt, Jan Barber, a local attorney, who then led him to her brother, Mike Hebert, Evans’ father. “He didn’t know that I existed,” Evans says. “It was a total surprise.” Evans met his biological father in September 2019, about six months before Hebert died at age 70.
“It’s crazy. It’s a really weird situation,” Evans says of the story he has pieced together of his parents, something he hopes to one day document in a novel. “My draw to Lafayette has been natural.”
As fate would have it, Evans grew up in and out of restaurants and bars in Lake Charles. His adopted parents owned La Normandie Lounge, a neighborhood bar with an oilfield clientele, and then opened Dave’s Oyster House in the late ’80s. Evans began shucking oysters at his and his father’s namesake restaurant when he was 13. By 18, he was the front of house night manager, still working in the kitchen during the day. In his 20s, Evans spent two years on the west coast before returning to Lake Charles to open Dave’s Pub, a live music dive bar he ran in the ’90s, hosting a circuit of celebrated Louisiana underground bands like Frigg A Go-Go, Soilent Green and Deadboy & The Elephantmen (Evans himself is a musician).
After closing Dave’s due to a landlord dispute, he launched Luna — a restaurant that brought together all his passions: a menu that is both West Coast and Gulf Coast with dishes like made-from-scratch spinach and artichoke dip and the signature Luna Tuna (seared yellowfin tuna in a creamy lemon butter sauce), an active bar with live music, and a nightclub atmosphere.
“It’s a pure reflection of my entire universe,” Evans says. “It’s the coolest situation for me because I walk into all my favorite stuff. It’s really easy to wake up and go to.”
Luna’s Lafayette location was originally scheduled to open last spring. Contractor issues forced delays, which were then compounded by the pandemic and Hurricane Laura’s devastation of Lake Charles. Following the storm, Evans and his family, who count themselves among the more fortunate, spent two months in Lafayette before they were able to return home to re-opened schools and a restored home and restaurant. Evans says his biggest issue became finding and bringing back Luna staff who had lost everything.
“It was really detrimental,” Evans says of the hurricane’s overall impact. “It wasn’t just property damage. We lost a lot of people who haven’t been able to come back.”
Count Reta Durgan of Mama Reta’s Kitchen among them. Durgan is still working through an insurance claim to repair her Lake Charles home. She also lost her restaurant. Initially unable to get answers on how long it would take for the landlords to have the leased property fixed, she and her husband relocated to Gonzales, then Lafayette, helped by family along the way. When she happened upon the Johnston Street location, it seemed to have everything she was looking for — a drive-through, small dining area and high traffic location. Last November, she signed a one-year lease. It helped ease the news when she recently discovered her old Lake Charles landlord has now leased to a new tenant.
“I’d been there six years. They didn’t even call me,” Durgan says.
While business here has not been as brisk, Durgan says she is still getting established, and the pandemic has kept many people at home.
Durgan finds comfort in the rhythms and rituals of the kitchen, preferring to come in and work by herself for the first few quiet hours of the day. It’s a meditation time, she says. She recalls a saying her mother had about taking inventory of herself. “I would never understand it when she used to say it, but now I know as I get older with grandkids, kids and all that. I take inventory of myself to see where I’m at today, where I need to be and I’m constantly thinking,” she says.
Durgan began cooking when she was very young, helping her working mother feed eight kids (Durgan is the youngest). “I was always in the kitchen, in the way,” she says.
As a teenager, Durgan began helping with meals at church, learning from her elders, and got a job frying chicken at the Church’s Chicken on Broad Street. She later moved on to a longtime job at Tony’s Pizza, where she was known for her kitchen work ethic as well as a welcoming spirit that embodied good customer service, earning her the nickname “Mama Reta.” For staff birthdays, Durgan would surprise her coworkers with her own country soul food — laying out pans of baked chicken, red beans and rice, yams and cornbread — for an elaborate early morning staff meal.
“The old man would come in about 9:30,” she says, noting the time they needed to start prepping for lunch. “By the time [the owner] got there, we’d be full. We’d have already eaten and put everything up.”
She struggled for years to open her own place. People began to look in disbelief at the sign announcing her restaurant that was “coming soon.”
“I don’t believe that anybody really thought I would do it,” she says, “because the sign was up there for seven years.”
In April 2014, Durgan was diagnosed with breast cancer. That May, she had successful surgery to remove the cancer. Two months later, she came across a vacant restaurant location on Broad Street that seemed to fit what she’d been looking for. In September, Mama Reta’s opened for business.
Now, Durgan is in a new kitchen. And while the location may be different, some things remain the same. Loyal customers, some of whom have also relocated from Lake Charles, have followed her here, coming in for Wednesday’s popular meat loaf plate lunch, the Saturday barbecue and the baked or fried catfish on Fridays. “All the experiences I’ve had, I’m still thankful,” Durgan says. “Even going through the storm, I’m still thankful for what’s happening and where I’m at today.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Evans, who is welcoming the challenges brought by a new location in a busier Downtown district. “There’s a belief structure in it that is, we’re gonna come over here and we’re gonna make this area better. Because that’s our angle. We’re good neighbors.
“We hang our hat on our food,” Evans continues. “We hang our hat on our atmosphere. You’re not gonna feel this somewhere else. I haven’t.”