The Year In Dining

This was a pretty good year for New Orleans restaurants, at least in business terms. And that was a pleasant surprise.

As the year opened, the competition from the casinos loomed large in the nightmares of restaurateurs. But except for a handful of restaurants in places like the West Bank and the Gulf Coast, for the most part that bad dream just vanished.

The other problem many restaurateurs worried about was the terrible projections for convention and other visitor business during the summer months. There was no doubt that July and August in particular were distressing for those places that rely heavily on visitors to fill their chairs–and that would include even the best hotel restaurants. But the fall was so good for the same establishments that the year doesn’t look too bad, if it could be said to be bad at all.

And for the places that draw mainly on locals, the whole year was pretty good. The city’s population as a whole may still be feeling a pinch, but the segment of it that dines out had a pretty good year, and was celebrating with an increase in its dining-out frequency.

That happened even in the face of a fairly significant rise in prices on local menus. Dish dollars, after remaining pretty much stable for some five or six years, rose in 1995 by about eight percent overall. (This figure comes from an index I keep of forty dishes at various kinds of restaurants around town.)

The price increases were led by the high-profile restaurants, most notably the Windsor Court Grill Room, Arnaud’s, Emeril’s, and Commander’s Palace. All of those advanced their prices noticeably in the past two years or so without any loss of business. (Some of them did it furtively. At Commander’s, for example, the lunch specials remained at the same level as before, but they include fewer courses.) During 1995, particularly toward the end of the year, the second echelon of restaurants took the cue.

As that went on, an interesting other trend became apparent: restaurants are serving more food. Portions, which began shrinking in the early Eighties, bottomed out about four years ago. (Around 1991 there was a plague of four-ounce fish fillets). Since then, portions have been growing, and now one is being fed borderline too much food. This is particularly obvious at Emeril’s, Andrea’s, the Pelican Club, and the Rib Room. In none of these places can there be any complaint about the quality of the surfeits, either; all these serve the best foodstuffs in the marketplace.

In the background during the past year there was a current I find slightly disturbing. It seems to me that the creative forward motion of the local cuisines has all but ground to a halt. The cutting-edge Creole restaurants spent the past year re-running uncompleted experiments of the recent past, or even reviving really old dishes. The only thing really new in the past couple of years is that suddenly everybody’s doing pork chops, and even that has a certain retro quality about it.

Between the time I wrote that down and the commencement of this paragraph, I went though my menu files to check out the above hypothesis. And I find that even in restaurants that are perceived as highly innovative, the new dishes added in recent times have either been revivals of classical Creole ideas (Commander’s Palace and the Palace Cafe are particularly active that way), minor variations on the dishes the place has been doing for the past few years, or fusion dishes with flavors and ingredients from other lands.

Indeed, the two most interesting new restaurants of the past eighteen months were Graham’s and Jason’s, neither of which cook much Louisiana-style food at all.

I’m glad I mentioned Jason’s just then, because that place is emblematic of one of the nuttier new restaurant trends. We are in a time when any chef who can extemporaneously string together a long, thoughtful-sounding sentence about his food is perhaps just minutes away from stardom. Or at least is viewed that way by restaurant owners, who are eager to do anything that might give them a leg up.

Jason McDonald, for whom Jason’s was named, was brought in to turn Que Sera–never much of an eatery–into a real restaurant, one that takes full advantage of its great Uptown location. Near as I could tell, Jason’s was moving toward that goal. At the very least, it was serving highly original and very good (if extremely un-local) food, and generating a good deal of talk in the process. But after five months, McDonald was spun off. Almost this same story can be told about Gerard Maras and Cafe Sbisa, and about Larkin Selman and a restaurant open so briefly that nobody can remember its name.

Whatever reasons may be given for this high-profile turnover of chefs, there are two truths that may be received from it. First, you’re going to see even more of that sort of thing in the coming year. Second, the golden era of the personality chef is ending. Diners are burnt out on it, for not the least reason that there are too many alleged culinary stars, and they seem to be present wherever the prices are less than a bargain. Chef-owners (true owners, not front men) will continue to have great, popular restaurants. But for the most part you can ignore what any restaurateur says about his hired mastermind in the kitchen.

Without a doubt the biggest news in the restaurant business this year was the retirement en masse of the first generation of Brennan restaurateurs, and the turning over of the four-restaurant empire (with Commander’s as the capital) to the sons and daughters. It caught everybody by surprise, but it started something. The Brennans at Brennans–who don’t converse with the closely-related Commander’s Palace Brennans–have brought in their sons and daughters. Pip, Jimmy and Ted Brennan are nowhere near retirement age, but since we never saw the next generation at the restaurant before, it must mean something. And there are quite a few other places that look ripe for a turnover to fresh faces.

Foodstuffs were a big issue this year. Oysters were great; crawfish were terrible; crabs were mysteriously scarce through most of the normal season and abnormally plentiful after the season ended (i.e., right now). The gill net law has not had an effect on restaurant fish supplies yet, but will have a big impact a couple of years from now; look for restaurateurs to join the picketing against sport fishermen.

Finally, it’s official: as of the first of the year, cigar dinners are out. A few will be scheduled by restaurants that haven’t come up with anything new to replace them, but their popularity will dwindle to nothing imminently.

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