True to its roots while open to the interesting and new, Dempsey’s lures diners from near and far home to the Kiln.
– Story and photos by Lisa Monti, photos by Ellis Anderson
The multiple choices listed under appetizers, seafood, steaks, and chicken present a happy dilemma for diners, especially on a first visit. But for Dempsey’s regular customers — and there are many of them — it’s easy to fall back on their favorites: the abundant platter for two (gumbo, stuffed crab, shrimp, oysters, redfish, catfish and crawfish pies), the charbroiled oysters (Dempsey’s specialty), the famous shrimp and grits, or fresh grilled fish.
“It’s the same menu, but it’s grown at each place,” she said. “We even added Sunday brunch.”
Diane was following in her restaurateur father Andrew Marino’s footsteps in 2003 when she opened Dempsey’s on Coleman Avenue in Waveland “two years and two weeks before the storm hit.”
His restaurant, Jack Dempsey’s, operated on Poland Avenue in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans for 36 years.
After Katrina, Hennessy operated her restaurant for four years on Lower Bay Road in Lakeshore, and six years ago Dempsey’s moved to its current location on Kiln-Delisle Road.
Wherever the location, customers have followed. There are locals, out-of-towners, and out-of-state travelers who fill the dining room for lunch and pack the place for dinner.
“It’s very busy, especially on weekends,” Hennessy said. To keep things rolling along, Dempsey’s has an efficient, friendly staff of about 40. During a recent busy lunch service, several waitstaff joined around a table to sing “Happy Birthday” to a regular customer. At a nearby table, another server artfully handled a table of seven who wanted separate checks.
But back to the food. It’s New Orleans style — stuffed artichokes, frog legs, seafood platters — and plentiful and handsomely presented on each plate.
For our lunch, the seafood gumbo was rich, the fried shrimp poboy on chewy Leidenheimer French bread was wonderful, the tasty eggplant fries were crunchy and somehow oil-free, and the two large grilled redfish fillets were seasoned perfectly. The shrimp and grits topped with creamy Swamp sauce was something to behold and savor.
“It’s how my dad always did it,” Hennessy said. “He always said people eat with their eyes. I’m following in his footsteps.”
Hennessy’s kitchen prepares everything in house, including the rich seafood Swamp Sauce that tops the fried grit cake on the top-selling shrimp and grits entree.
“Nothing goes out of the kitchen that’s store bought. I take pride in the food and want it to taste delicious,” Hennessy said.
And while the menu is biased toward seafood, the Angus steaks don’t take a back seat at Dempsey’s. In fact, Hennessy said, the restaurant earned second place among Mississippi steakhouses in a magazine poll.
If the menu wasn’t packed enough, a chalkboard in the center of the dining room announces some delicious new treats: steamed seafood including Royal Reds, Dungeness and snow crabs, and — a rarity in Hancock County — escargot, a favorite of Diane’s. “I like to cook things you can’t get anywhere else,” she said.
Dempsey’s has 120 seats in the large dining room and bar area, but the place usually fills up with families and groups so reservations are a good way to get around wait time, which can stretch out to an hour at night.
And if the food weren’t enough to attract people to the Kiln, Dempsey’s hosts an annual Cruisin’ the Coast party. This year it’s on September 30 and will feature popular New Orleans performer Harvey Jesus.