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Networking: Tommy Cvitanovich
Proprietor, Drago’s Seafood Restaurant, Metairie and New Orleans, La.
by James Wright
August 01, 2012
A trip to New Orleans without a visit to Drago’s Seafood Restaurant in nearby Metairie could be considered a culinary opportunity lost. Anyone who’s noshed on the signature dish at Drago’s, home of the “original” charbroiled oyster, would most likely agree (Drago’s claims they’re the “single best bite of food in New Orleans”). Moments off the grill, the blistering hot bivalves slathered in herbed butter are truly one of the most memorable and decadent seafood experiences to be found east or west of the Mississippi River (or in this case, right on it). Founded in 1969 by Croatian immigrant Drago Cvitanovich, the restaurant has become a Crescent City treasure, and for good reason.
Today, Drago’s son, Tommy, 53, oversees operations and keeps alive the family traditions of Southern hospitality and Gulf seafood at reasonable prices. The volunteer leader for the National Restaurant Association is unquestionably a leader in his community. He was last year’s recipient of New Orleans’ coveted Loving Cup award, given by the Times-Picayune to unselfish citizens who don’t seek public acclaim. When we spoke in June, the family was busily preparing for the restaurant patriarch’s 90th birthday on July 11, when 100 percent of the original Metairie location’s proceeds went to benefit the St. Bernard Project, which funds the rebuilding of homes and lives of Hurricane Katrina survivors. The goal was to donate at least one home to a family in the local hospitality industry, possibly three — that’s New Orleans for you, in an oyster shell.
How involved is your father these days?
He’s completely retired. He’s 90, but he’s healthy — a bit forgetful but health-wise he’s good. He comes into the restaurant almost every day, and goes to the casino a couple times a week. And he loves spending time with all eight of his grandchildren.
When did you take over operations at the restaurant?
Probably 20-25 years ago. There was a transition. It wasn’t an overnight thing. I’d say it was a five-year process, at least. Today, my mom still signs my check. I guess it depends on how you look at it; maybe it hasn’t happened yet! My mom (Klara) is very active in the business. She works the front door every day.
Was Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath forgotten once the oil spill hit?
I wouldn’t say it’s forgotten. You live here, you never forget. But I’ve already put the oil spill behind me and I’ve put Katrina behind me. As every day goes by, more people are putting those two events behind them. The Saints winning the Super Bowl made such an impact on everyone here. No Super Bowl win has impacted any city more than the Saints’ did for us. That was the single biggest thing that has affected this city; it did more to rebuild the city than everything else combined. Every Friday I feed the team charbroiled oysters during the season at the training facility. They love them.
Are the charbroiled oysters the most talked-about dish you offer?
No two ways about it. We serve more than 3 million oysters a year in two restaurants, one dozen at a time. People say it’s the “best thing they’ve ever eaten,” or it’s “like crack cocaine,” or “you can’t just eat one.” You hear everything.
What are you hearing about oyster supplies this summer?
There is still a concern about the stock — a lot did die. It’s the freshwater that killed them. But it kept the oil off the shoreline.
What are the biggest current needs for your community?
We need people to come to New Orleans for a weekend, a week or a vacation, come to the zoo, come to the bars, hit on our women, do all those things and then go home and tell everyone how much fun it was. It’s the single most important thing for us. Enjoy your time here, have fun and be ambassadors for us.