JoAnn Clevenger: The Crescent City Charmer

How Louisiana lady JoAnn Clevenger became one of the South’s most remarkable restaurateurs.

In Uptown New Orleans, a hungry host of guests stream into a yellow-painted building to take their seats.

It’s Saturday night, and they’ve come to sip Sazeracs beneath soaring walls covered in portraits and paintings, and commune over crisp fried green tomatoes with shrimp rémoulade or perhaps duckling that’s been slow-roasting for hours. This is Upperline, a Crescent City gem that has been pumping out classic Creole fare since its doors opened in 1983. It’s equal parts elegant and comfortable, thoughtful and elaborate. But to legendary owner JoAnn Clevenger, it’s more. It’s a haven for happiness.

“We work really hard—the staff, the bartender, the servers, the cooks, the chef—to make you happy,” JoAnn explains. “If we make you happy, and you tell us how happy you are, then we feel so good that we want to come back tomorrow and do it all over again. It’s reciprocal. I like to call it the benevolent circle.”

Long before JoAnn was the owner of a James Beard Foundation Award-nominated restaurant, she was a young girl with a quirky spirit of determination and admiration for hard-working women. A north Louisiana native, she grew up spending time on her grandparents’ farm watching her grandmother care for the family—with no indoor plumbing or electricity, mind you.

“It was hard, and we were poor, but they were role models for me,” says JoAnn. “My grandmother had a wood-burning stove and washed her clothes out back in a big iron pot, jabbing at them with a stick. She raised the chickens, milked the cows, and made the butter. Then, she took the cream and the eggs and the butter to the country store and used them to barter. My grandfather had a mule, a plow, two horses, and pigs and chickens. They both worked so hard.”

When she was 17, JoAnn moved to New Orleans to be with her ill mother at the now closed Charity Hospital. It was there that JoAnn began to understand the impact of women in the workplace. In the town where she grew up, women were mothers and homemakers. But in New Orleans, women were powerful. She saw the nuns, with their large, stark-white coifs, running the show in the hospital. She saw female teachers who invested in the lives of students, and women who owned art galleries, restaurants, and bars where movie stars would pop in and perform into the wee hours of the morning.

“There were some very, very strong women who influenced me, but no one bragged about them,” JoAnn says. “They had power, but no one touted it. It gave me an awareness that women can be in management and women can make decisions—not just follow other people’s decisions.”

“Other women in these roles, running restaurants and running other businesses, inspire me, and I think that maybe what I do can inspire other people.”

Over the years, figures like these encouraged JoAnn to pursue her dreams. She owned a flower cart, was sued by the Louisiana Horticulture Commission for not carrying a florist license, lobbied to change the law, and won. She opened a vintage clothing store of which musical legend Paul McCartney was a customer, and found herself designing costumes for One Mo’ Time, an African American vaudeville play that at one point had five casts around the world. “It turned out to be a hit,” she explains. “I even got to see the Queen of England shake hands with the New Orleans cast while wearing my costumes.” Joann even owned a bar on Bourbon Street (where Joni Mitchell once sang), and bought another from a Filipino yo-yo champion.

At Upperline, JoAnn, with her round, tortoiseshell-framed glasses and silver hair piled atop her head, is as memorable as the cuisine. On any given night, she floats from room to room, upstairs and down, weaving through tables and chairs, checking on guests. She straightens one of the more than four hundred pieces of art with a broomstick and sparks meaningful conversations between strangers. In a city where world-renowned restaurants line the streets, one after another, and beignets and po’ boys are on every corner, it takes something special to stand out from the rest. But thanks to JoAnn, Upperline has that something special.

“Other women in these roles, running restaurants and running other businesses, inspire me, and I think that maybe what I do can inspire other people,” says JoAnn. “If Leah Chase could make Dooky Chase go and Ella Brennan could make Commander’s Palace go, and so many other women, then maybe I can do the same.”

One day, JoAnn was cleaning out a drawer and came across her old Girl Scout pin. She remembered the lessons she’d been taught all those years ago—to be brave, strong, to stand up straight, and be kind. She pinned it to her dress and wore it to work, hoping it would help her remember those words of advice when times were difficult—and, she says, it worked.

“It’s very interesting how something can sort of rub something in your heart that says I want to be braver, I want to be stronger. And even if they’re mean, I’m going to be patient and I’m going to be kind.”

In the pantheon of Southern women, JoAnn Clevenger reigns supreme. With her half smile and contagious laugh, she’s a Louisiana lady of strength and dignity, kindness and gentility, quirk and passion. She’s a woman who found her place in the world by bringing joy to others through an exceptional Upperline meal, or maybe just a casual conversation.

Fried Green Tomatoes with Shrimp Rémoulade
JoAnn introduced the world to this now-classic pairing at Upperline.
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 cup whole buttermilk
  • 1 cup yellow corn flour
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 8 (½-inch-thick) slices green tomato
  • 6 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 24 medium boiled shrimp, chilled
  • Rémoulade Sauce (recipe follows)
  • Garnish: mixed greens
Rémoulade Sauce
  • ½ cup Creole mustard
  • 2 tablespoons ketchup
  • 2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1½ teaspoons paprika
  • ¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
  • ⅛ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • ⅛ teaspoon ground red pepper
  • Kosher salt, to taste
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup minced celery stalk with leaves
  • 2 tablespoons grated yellow onion
  • 1 tablespoon minced green onion top
  • 1½ teaspoons minced fresh parsley
  • Hot sauce, to taste (optional)
  1. In a medium bowl, whisk together egg and buttermilk. In a shallow dish, combine corn flour, salt, and pepper. Dip tomato slices in egg mixture, letting excess drip off. Dredge in corn flour mixture, shaking off excess.
  2. In a large sauté pan, heat oil over medium heat. Place tomato slices in a single layer in pan; cook, turning once, until golden brown on both sides, about 6 minutes.
  3. Place 2 tomato slices on each plate; top each slice with 3 shrimp. Spoon 1½ tablespoons Rémoulade Sauce over each tomato slice. Garnish with greens, if desired. Serve immediately.
Rémoulade Sauce
  1. In a small bowl, stir together mustard, ketchup, garlic, Worcestershire, lemon juice, paprika, white pepper, black pepper, red pepper, and salt. Whisk in oil in a slow, steady stream until combined. Add celery, onions, green onion, and parsley, stirring until well combined. Add hot sauce, if desired. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.