Like kids in high school, the dancers eye each other nervously as they line up to choose partners. Two lines form facing each other and the teacher patiently explains new steps as the dancers clumsily two-step around the tile floor. Another Arthur Murray class? No, it’s just another Wednesday night at Michaul’s, with about 100 to 200 Naval Reservists learning how to dance, Cajun-style.
Michaul’s, at 601 Patterson on Algiers Point, is the current mecca for Cajun music devotees. Dancing’s the main focus, with the emphasis on the two-step, waltz and Cajun jitterbug. Louisiana music is hot, and Michaul’s has it four nights a week for dancers who hail from all over the Gulf Coast, southern Louisiana and even all over the world.
“When we first opened, we thought we’d try jazz,” says Michele Jacob, who co-owns the restaurant with Paul Minpraphal, Michaul’s Thailand-born chef. (The restaurant’s name is a combination of their first names). “But my interest in Cajun music and the preservation of the Acadian culture led us to start offering traditional Cajun music once a week. The response was so great we decided to have Cajun and zydeco music as often as possible. Our decision turned out to be right on target.”
The restaurant was once a dry-goods store that serviced the nearby Naval Air Station in Belle Chasse on the New Orleans Westbank. Every other Wednesday night, Michaul’s has a party for Navy personnel, with no cover charge. Most Wednesdays the house band, La Touche, plays traditional Cajun music. Michaul’s hosts many of the events of The Cajun French Music Association, which is dedicated to promoting and preserving Cajun music and culture.
Michaul’s is a nostalgic, funky kind of place, with an old bar with a swamp theme, dark green-painted walls and original high tin ceilings and a large, danceable tile floor, the oldest of its kind in the city, according to the owners. The atmosphere is comfortable, and more important, fun.
“We absolutely require people to have a good time here,” says Michele. “If you want to be miserable, stay home! So far, nobody’s left yet!” Everybody dances at Michaul’s—
young, old and in-between, just as they do in the Cajun dance halls in southwest Louisiana. Jacob says, “We pull customers out of their chairs—we don’t let them sit down. And once you do start to dance here, it’s addicting, like drugs or chocolate. “
A common sight at Michaul’s is Michele, Paul or one of the waitresses dancing gracefully across the floor with one of the restaurant’s patrons. “We teach everyone to dance,” says Michele. “All my waitresses dance and we encourage them to teach customers how to waltz and two-step.” Cajun dancing does seem to have become an addiction for many locals and tourists, according to Peggy Usner, who’s taught Cajun dancing since 1981. “The Cajun tradition is that everyone gets a turn and no one can make a wrong step. Everyone dances, even little kids.”
More children are seen at Michaul’s than most music clubs around town because bands start playing early, at 7:30 or 8:00 on Wednesdays and Thursdays and at 9:00 on Fridays and Saturdays. Cajun and zydeco music are becoming more and more popular with visitors, many having experienced a vicarious taste of the dance style through movies such as “The Big Easy.” Cajun dancing has been supported for years in the city by devotees of the waltz and two-step—a group that seems to be expanding rapidly. Another Michaul’s is planned to open this fall in the Warehouse District to satisfy the increasing demand from tourists and locals alike, according to the owners.
If nothing else, Michaul’s has a special appeal to families. “Many people bring their kids to the restaurant, have dinner and then dance after they eat, or even between courses,” says Paul, Michaul’s chef. Paul developed the unique, spicy taste of Michaul’s seafood and chicken specialties from his experience with Thai and “coon-ass” (Cajun) cookery. The cuisine is jokingly described by the owners as “Thai-Coon.” Entrees are reasonably priced from $8.25 to $10.25. Cover charges are low, at $3 to $5 for Cajun and zydeco bands that regularly include Cajun Brew, File and Wayne Toups’ ZyDeCajun.
“This place is magical,” says Michele. “If you love to dance and don’t want to drive all the way to Lafayette, Michaul’s is the place to be.”