We like to eat. It's more than just a function of survival. It's an excuse for conversation, a reason for a party, and a chance to visit and catch up with family and friends.

Even during the work week, when there's little time or cause for celebration, we make time for our favorite local restaurants that serve up the meals we long for ' smothered pork chops at Antler's, corn grits at Zea, chicken-fried steak at Dwyer's, gumbo at Don's, or the barbecued pork steak at Country Cuisine.

And some of us make the pilgrimages like clockwork, forsaking all other obligations and plans, to keep the date with the meals we love. The Independent Weekly caught up with some local restaurant regulars and the proprietors who serve them to find out what keeps them coming back.

Blue Plate Specials

Merline Herbert loves feeding Josh Massico. Most people show up on Thursdays at Creole Lunch House and have to choose between the chicken fricassée, fried pork chops and sausage creole that highlight the rotating menu. Not Josh.

"Josh eats it all," says Herbert, owner of the plate lunch mecca on 12th Street. "He doesn't have to say anything. Chicken, ribs, red beans, a link of sausage, rice and gravy, vegetables, and anything else you can get on that plate. He has a great appetite. It makes cooking more fun." A customer next in line asks how much it costs to get a plate like Josh's. "He's a contract eater," Merline quips. "I charge him by the week, not the plate."

Josh has been eating at Creole Lunch House every Thursday for six years, along with his father, Ron Massicot, who started the Thursday tradition several years earlier. Ron owned Artificial Lift Inc. before he founded Lycon Inc. Both are gas lift service companies, and the tradition in the oilfield is to eat a hearty lunch.

"I've been eating chicken fricassée every Thursday for eight years," Ron says. "I just switched over to the stuffed pork chops." When Josh went to work for him six years ago, he introduced his son to Merline's stupefying soul food.

The newest inductee to the Massicot lunch table is Scott Fleming who came on board at Lycon several months ago. "I used to work sandblasting and on rigs offshore," Scott says. "Gas lift is a new cup of coffee for me." So is Creole Lunch House. "There's a lot of new stuff here. I usually get ribs and sausage. But I don't eat lunch every day like this."

Actually Josh, Ron and Scott do eat pretty hefty lunches daily. Mondays, they eat at Royal Panda Chinese restaurant on Pinhook. Tuesdays, they're downtown at Dwyer's Cafe. Wednesdays, right now, is up for grabs. Fridays they go to The Ground Pat'i.

Thursdays, though, is the heart of the week for the trio. "We come here to harass Ms. Merline," Ron says. "We give her a hard time. She picks back."

"That's right," Merline says. "And why are you drinking water? You should be drinking a soft drink. Man, you should be helping me pay the bill, not raise my water bill."

Kent Sibille, Matt Massoni and Kirk Hanung have dibs on an adjacent table. Kent and Matt work for Paul Fournet Air Service. Kirk just started with Acadian Ambulance's Air Med division. Kirk is a Katrina evacuee. "My job was wiped out," he says. "I worked at the Lakefront airport, which got smashed by a wall of water."

Kent and Matt, who are 10-year veterans of Merline's cooking, introduced Kirk to Creole Lunch House in January. "It only took me one time to become a regular," Kirk says.

"I like to come on Wednesdays," adds Matt. "Wednesdays is beef stew. I like my beef stew."

"We're here at least once a week," Kent says. "The food's great, but you can't eat like this every day and survive."

Kent says he has put on some weight over the years dining on Merline's cooking. "She actually gives you too much food." That statement is belied by the empty plates on the table. "Course you're not going to walk away hungry," he adds.

Soul food is offering solace for the time being to Kent and Matt, who are worried about their jobs. Paul Fournet Air Services, a fixed base operator at the Lafayette airport since 1952, will lose its lease in 2007. It's uncertain what will happen to Fournet's employees when new operator Million Air takes over. "For the working guy, you can't beat the price," Kent says. "Even if we're not working guys for much longer."

At the Lycon table, it's pretty quiet. "We don't talk, we just eat," laughs Ron. Josh finishes his plate. Scott rubs his belly. "I ate a little too much," he says. The crew is headed back to work, but according to Ron not much work gets done on Thursday afternoons. "Those two guys, when they get back, all you hear is snoring." ' Mary Tutwiler

Table 59

You'll have to get up mighty early in the morning to catch Dr. Bob Rivet jogging in his neighborhood, part of the daily regimen for this competitive runner, but you can easily find him sitting at Table 59 every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at Bella Figura on Kaliste Saloom Road.

"He's three days a week; he has his own table and his own servers," says Bella Figura owner Jack Ainsworth. "There is no better customer; certainly no more consistent customer."

The soft-spoken 73-year-old doc, who arrived in Lafayette in 1968 to become the city's first neurosurgeon, is having lunch on a recent Wednesday with lobbyist Ross Brupbacher, a longtime friend he helped land a job at Lafayette General Medical Center. Brupbacher was the hospital's in-house counsel from 1995-2003, and "Dr. Bob," who worked as a neurosurgeon until 1999, still serves as a member of the hospital's board of trustees. Bob stopped performing surgeries after his third stroke but soon went to work for Hospice of Acadiana. He was named medical director in 2001, a volunteer position.

Yet another stroke later, Lafayette's most famous dining doc has his health in check. He gets up every weekday at 3:30 a.m. (his answering service calls just to make sure he's up), takes his jog, serves the Eucharist at St. Mary's Catholic Church, and spends the rest of the morning at Hospice ' signing death certificates, Medicare recertification forms and prescriptions. By noon he's at lunch ' alternating between iMonelli and Zea the two week days he's not at Bella.

He always treats, rarely eats out for dinner, and almost always has several lunch companions.

No sooner does Ross depart that an attractive brunette walks up, greeted by a warm smile from Bob. "Guess what they don't have today," he says as soon as she takes her seat. "Whole wheat bread." He claims Bella's whole wheat is the best in town.

The thrice-divorced doc who still maintains friendships with his ex-wives has quite the reputation as a ladies' man ' a fact his married lunch companion, Janice Marcantel, and Bob himself readily admit. The two met at Guamas (a Cuban-inspired eatery he discovered after striking a conversation with Guamas owner Julietta Tarazona in the Zea restaurant one day) when Janice was sitting at the bar waiting for her now-husband and Bob was waiting for his date. The two became fast friends, and now Janice and her friend Rachael Ardoin join him for lunch regularly. "We usually try to meet once a week," Janice says.

In fact, Bob is so enamored by the opposite sex that he only wants female waitresses serving him. "I'm a red-blooded American boy," he quips proudly. Today's male waiter, whom he calls "Z," hails from Croatia and is one of only a couple of male servers he likes. Bob says Z is an interesting character and is drawn to his matter-of-fact personality, which is much like his own.

The good doctor doesn't hold back his opinions, but he tries to make people laugh when he lays them on the table. It worked with Jack when the two met at a social function in the early 1970s, back when the restaurateur owned local Pizza Inns. "I told him I didn't eat his pizza because it wasn't greasy enough," Bob says. "[Jack] said, 'I can make the damn pizza as greasy as you want.'" The two became friends, and years later the surgeon performed life-saving brain surgery on Jack's daughter, finding a blood clot in her brain other doctors had overlooked. "I just had more experience," Bob says. "Thank God I found it."

The loyal patron doesn't stray far from his menu favorites. At Bella, it's the Mahi Mahi with "Rivet" sauce ' lemon, chicken broth, white wine and olive oil; at Zea, tomato basil soup; and at iMonelli, corn and crab bisque. "Once I like something, I never change my mind," the doctor notes.

Bob also has been the LSU football team's doctor for the past 25 years ' and is himself quite an accomplished runner, having missed LSU's game against the University of Florida this year for a Senior Olympic qualifying meet in Baton Rouge. "I told the coach the team can play without me, but I can't run without me," he jokes. The surgeon won three bronze medals and qualified to compete in the 2007 Senior Olympics in Louisville, Ky.

Dr. Bob shows no signs of slowing down, and if his family genes are any indication, he'll be feeding the profits of local restaurants, directing the local hospice and running in his neighborhood for some time. His 80-year-old sister drove from New Orleans to Baton Rouge to watch him compete, and she's planning to take their 90-year-old sister to Louisville to support him in the national finals next year. The affable doc is likely to have lots of friends rooting for him, including some of LSU's cheerleaders.

More than 12,000 seniors from across the country will compete in 18 sports and more than 800 events, with Bob challenging in the 100 and 200-meter runs. "If I win, and I'm going to, I'm going to write a book ' Running With God ' and I'm going to donate the money to Father Robie's [Robichaux] charity," he says. ' Leslie Turk

The Back Booth

Lunch time at Bella Figura can get a bit sticky when another regular wants Dr. Bob Rivet's table, the most popular in the house, and the same is true at Zea Rotisserie & Grill on Doucet Road, which serves the best corn grits in the country. Dr. Bob and Cecil Trahan have been known to vie for the same back booth near the kitchen at lunchtime.

Cecil is more of a regular at Zea than the doc these days, but he's been known to turn the table over to his respected friend. "He liked that booth a whole lot," Cecil says. "I really felt like I needed to give it up. I gave him the courtesy."

Any Zea regular knows Cecil, a local commercial broker and real estate developer whose office is in the same shopping center as the popular restaurant. But it's more than convenience that draws him and his two sons, Chad and Todd, to Zea. "The food is fantastic. It's a great restaurant for quality food, and the management, Leonard Louvierre, is excellent. You can tell the [wait staff] has been trained properly," Cecil says. "That's a hard combination to beat."

Always dressed neck to toe in black, Cecil typically orders the Honey Island Chicken Sandwich ' sans the bread, bacon, jack cheese and honey mustard sauce. "It's just fried chicken, lettuce and tomato," he notes. For his side item, he gets the buttered sweet potatoes. But prime rib is his all-time favorite selection from the upscale comfort food menu. "That is absolutely delicious. And the Thai ribs are great, too."

The Trahans eat out every day and also frequent Bella Figura, La Fonda, Charley G's, Antler's and Dwyer's. But "by far," according to Cecil, they spend most days at Zea.

The local real estate group ' Trahan's sons joined him in the business this year ' prefers the back booth because it's close to the kitchen and they get served quickly. But Zea does not reserve tables. "We eat early, so we kind of get the pick of where we sit," Cecil says. ' Leslie Turk

Mexican Stand Off

"It's all about visiting," says Judy Wade. Relaxing with a glass of white wine in her hand, her brown eyes scan the crowd at the bar at LaFonda. "On any given night I can run into somebody I know, and I can talk to them." Her husband Robert shouts over the clatter: "Sometimes it takes 15 minutes to get from the bar to our table. Sometimes you're just saying hello, and a party breaks out."

If four cut-ups constitute a party, the Wades, along with their friends Charles and Mo Trent, have been instigating celebrations at LaFonda since 1991. Every Wednesday night, friends and family know where to find them.

"When we started, we came on Thursdays," Charles says. "Back then Judy was a schoolteacher. It was our mid-week celebration. But Judy said she needed a night to rest before the weekend, so we switched it to Wednesday."

"Mid-week, nobody can beat LaFonda," Mo adds. "It's like Cheers. Everybody knows everybody."

Judy, Charles and Mo were students together at USL at a time none of them will disclose. After graduation they went separate ways. The two couples reconnected at a Krewe of Bonaparte party in 1991. "From that point on we agreed to have dinner together once a week," Mo says.

Actually, the Wades' version of how they wound up at LaFonda is a bit different. "Robert had met Charles and Mo at a UL baseball game," Judy says. "Then, several times in the following months, we saw them here, and one time we just decided to have dinner."

What has held this running dinner party together for 15 years is something that usually drives people apart ' politics. "They're Republicans," Robert says of the Trents. "I'm a big Democrat. We've had a lot to fight about. First we had Bush Senior. Then we had Clinton, and everything was going great. Of course Charles was bummed. Then, the last eight years, he's had to defend George W. Bush."

"We don't have many friends who are Democrats," Mo says. "In fact I think they are our only friends who are Democrats."

"I squirmed all the Clinton years," Charles says. "Back in the early '90s, when Bush Senior was running for re-election, Robert and I went to a Bush rally. Don't tell anyone, but I think Robert voted for him."

"With the first Bush presidency, the oil business was doing well," Robert says. "So we were OK. But with the fumbling of George Junior ..."

"Oh, my God, if Hillary gets in there ..." Mo begins, then stops with a grimace. "We're not Hillary fans."

Curiously, neither the Wades nor the Trents drink margaritas, LaFonda's calling card. "I used to drink them," Mo says. "But I grew up."

"I still drink them," Charles says, holding a glass of wine.

"You wake up with such terrible headaches," Mo complains.

After two rounds of drinks, Ronald, their regular waiter, tucks them into a table in the main dining room. The first course is Super Nachos, no sour cream, with extra guacamole. "That's our salad," Judy says.

While they all look at the menu, after 15 years of weekly dinners, they all know what they are going to order. "You're going to think I'm a regimented guy, doing only certain things all the time," Robert says. "I come here, I get caught up on all the Lafayette news, get caught up on sports."

Robert asks Ronald if they have the osso bucco, an Italian veal shank stew that's not listed on the menu. Neither is fried chicken, another insiders-only dish. LaFonda has neither tonight, so Robert orders the broiled chicken, a baked potato and an enchilada, his regular dinner order each week. Judy pats him on the arm. "You know you don't like change," she consoles.

For the first 10 years, Mo ate the Night Hawk, an enchilada, tamale and chilupa. "That's 500 Night Hawks, you understand," Charles says. "Then I went to broiled chicken and ate that every week for a few years," she says. "We're creatures of habit."

"I'm not crazy about Mexican food," Judy admits. "But they have wonderful shrimp dishes."

A trip to LaFonda is a trip down memory lane for long-time Lafayette residents. "In the 1980s, [during the oil boom] we used to come on Fridays at 11:30 a.m. and leave after dinner," Robert says. "Before 1986, when all the oilfield companies had expense accounts ... "

"... A lady never had to pay for a drink, or dinner," Judy finishes his sentence.

Robert signals Ronald from across the room, and in a few minutes, without a word exchanged, Ronald appears with fresh drinks.

Another Lafayette ritual is the Washington Mardi Gras ball, which the Wades and Trents attend every year. "Our congressmen all have hospitality suites. We all four go together," Mo says. "Ten years ago, John Breaux welcomed us into his suite. 'I know you vote Republican,' he said to us, but you party like Democrats.'"

"Sometimes, with elections coming up, it gets very heated," Mo concludes. "But we always kiss at the end of the night. And we all show up the next week. If we can't come here, it messes up our week." ' Mary Tutwiler

Booth 2

Gerald Judice points to one of the 20 wooden plaques on the wall over Booth 2 at Judice Inn. "Mr. Gassie's was the first one," he says.

The plaque reads:

In Memory of
J. Howard Gassie
Charter Member
Booth "2"
Judice Inn
1978

After Gassie's death, a family member brought the plaque into the restaurant and requested that it be hung at the booth. "After that," Gerald says, "many of the families of the gentlemen that came here, after they passed away ' it might be weeks, it might be months, it might be a year or so ' they would bring in a plaque to be hung."

Brothers Alcide and Marc Judice built and opened Judice Inn on Johnston Street in 1947, outside Lafayette's city limits. Today it's in the middle of the city, on Johnston Street across from ­' and in the shadow of ' the 16-screen Grand Theatre. Judice Inn continues to serve up small, deliciously greasy hamburgers and ice cold 8-ounce bottles of Coca-Cola. The restaurant is still owned by the brothers' widows, Pearl Cormier Judice and Gladys Bourque Judice; and Gerald, Marc's youngest son, has managed the eatery since the late '80s, after his father suffered a stroke.

Booth 2 stands out from the rest of the 13 booths. It's flanked by two benches with green cushions, but its yellow Formica tabletop is worn. The plaques surround a large faded black and white aerial photo of the Atchafalaya Basin. Nailed to the white frame is a plaque for J.D. Lambert, who donated the photo and who died in 2002. The rest of the walls are decorated with UL memorabilia and newspaper clippings of family members' public triumphs, framed and shellaced.

The Judices never adopted a formal policy for displaying the plaques at Booth 2. "Dad and them never wanted to do that," Gerald says, "because they would be choosing which customers or friends they would put on the wall. So they left it strictly up to the families. And I still do the same thing. Whatever's brought in we're honored and happy to hang it up here, but we don't pick and choose which ones to put up and which ones not to put up. We let the families decide if that's something they'd like to do or not."

Thinking back on all the men who used to frequent Booth 2, Gerald can't recall one who still comes in on a regular basis. Most of them have died. And to remember and honor all the men who made the tiny booth, their second home throughout the years, Gerald says there should be at least 25 plaques.

The men who frequented Booth 2, between their jobs and their home lives, were men cut from different cloths ' lawyers, doctors, professors, bankers, oilfield workers, accountants, carpenters, landmen and business owners. But they had conversation in common. They spoke of everything from politics to sports to World War II, and everything in between. But rarely did they speak of their personal lives.

"In general," Gerald says, "they didn't socialize all that much outside of the inn. Many of them, I would dare say, had only met each other's wives once or twice during the period they were coming here. I barely met some of their spouses over the years. Most of them didn't do social things outside of the inn together."

Membership at Booth 2 was loose, unofficial and fluid. Over the years, Gerald says the nucleus remained the same, but the men came and went, as the demands of their personal and professional lives dictated.

One plaque for Dr. Bob Henderson reads: "The Ragin' Cajun, Booth #2, Judice Inn, 1996." It's rumored the professor was the first to strike upon the name for the local university's current mascot. Another plaque remembers Kenneth J. Bailey, an attorney who died in 1994, a quiet man who Gerald remembers would only speak when he had a witty, one-liner to add to the conversation.

Bill Thornton, who passed away several years ago, loved to reminisce about World War II. And although Gerald has had dozens of customers tell him that they were his father's first customer, Marc always told his son that the first customer was Booth 2 member Dr. P.W. "Phil" Rivers, who died in 1980.

Before his death in the early 1990s, Coy Dickerson worked for Baker Oil Tools, but he spent so much time at Judice Inn that his customers called him there, not at his office. He was the first one to arrive at the booth and usually the last one to leave. Occasionally, he would leave before the rest of the group, but only after he had intentionally started an argument between two other men.

The smallest plaque of all reads simply: "and SCHEX 1979." Mr. Schexnider, as Gerald remembers him, was a handyman for the inn who was absorbed into the fold at Booth 2.

"Having a group like that," Gerald says, "it was like an extended family. They become good friends of yours. The gentlemen that used to come in and sit in Booth 2, they were almost like uncles. They would correct us and teach us, just like my dad and them over the years. They would give us their different insights. It was a such diverse group as far as their backgrounds. They all had their 2 cents to add to our upbringing, as well as telling us about career choices and different things like that. It was kind of a neat way to grow up."

Today, Judice Inn can seat 60 people at a time and serves about 300 burgers every weekday and around 600 on Saturdays. About half of its business is call-in orders, but the family business continues to be driven by regular customers. "Our business was built on our regulars," Gerald says, "the families that have come, and then their kids start coming."

But Gerald says the men at Booth 2 were of a different ilk than today's regulars who might stop in once a week. It wasn't uncommon to see a Booth 2 regular in the restaurant three or four days a week, usually in the afternoons between work and supper time at their homes. Even after retirement, some of them would return throughout the week at the same time. "I guess it just became a habit," Gerald says. "That time was for Judice Inn."

The men at Booth 2 were more than customers. More than regulars even. "They became my dad's best friends," Gerald says. "This was their social life. This is where they lived their lives." ' R. Reese Fuller

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