The Year In Dining

Can’t pass up a chance to sum things up, so here’s the annual distillation of what went down in the restaurant business this year.

First of all, it has been a very good year indeed for restaurateurs. Anybody running an eatery who did not see a distinct improvement in volume needs to take a look at what he’s doing wrong, because the diners are going out and spending money.

They’re also moving upscale. In many cases, the restaurants are moving with them. Indeed, whole categories of restaurants seem to be raising their ambitions.

Most notable among the latter are the chains, who may have seen a bit of softening in these parts this year. (More about that later.) But, as an example: Outback Steakhouse this year added a line of USDA Prime beef to its menu. That’s prime as in Ruth’s Chris prime, and they’re selling at the Outback for prices in the $20-$25 range. Not bad, either–if you can forget where you are.

So many major new restaurants opened at the end of 1998 that we’ve spent most of this year digesting them. As I try to decide which was the best of this year’s vintage of new restaurants, I don’t come up with much of a list. Without a doubt the winner is Gamay, created by Greg and Mary Sonnier as an upscale followup to their wildly successful Gabrielle. According to a survey among my readers, Gamay is already the preferred Sonnier venue. The distinctly local cooking style and imagination you found at Gabrielle are very much in evidence at Gamay, even though the menus are entirely different. The space–in the Bienville House Hotel, where many restaurants have foundered–is handsome and very comfortable.

But not even that excellence can displace Galatoire’s claim to Restaurant Story of the Year. A renovation that took the better part of this year and in excess of $3 million has utterly transformed the restaurant. The seating area doubled with the addition of a trio of dining rooms upstairs–the first time there’s been any service up there in over 50 years.

The long-prayed-for remedy for the ordeal of getting a table at Galatoire’s also arrived. A bar and a waiting area were installed in the carriageway, so now the dreary wait on the sidewalk has been replaced by a much more agreeable wait indoors. If you have to wait at all. You can now get a reservation if you’re willing to dine upstairs (a very clever way to get people to accept the new rooms). And with all those new tables, even the classic downstairs room has loosened up a bit.

It also looks great. Even though the renovation went down to bedrock, the place was rebuilt to look like it did before. Nothing less would do, of course, and it’s nice to know the management understands that.

As a result, Galatoire’s is doing vastly more business than it ever has, and both those new kitchens are being kept very busy. I think it’s safe to call the project a success. Now if only those nouvelle versions of some of their culinary classics can revert to their delicious funky old selves. . .

The most interesting trend I’ve noticed this year is that there seems to be an increasing taste for dining well in places that either are or feel like neighborhood bars. The outstanding example of this is Cafe Marigny, which started as a coffeehouse and evolved all the way into a gourmet bistro this year. (They won’t even serve just a cup of coffee anymore.) The funny thing there is that the neighborhood folks have prevented them from obtaining a liquor license, so it isn’t a bar of any kind.

Another such place is 201, which opened in 1998 but really hit its stride this year. With live music on some nights and a busy bar every night, it looks like the kind of joint that just served burgers and seafood platters to keep the license. In fact, its kitchen is quite accomplished and original, and I never cease to be surprised by the eating here.

A neighborhood became a dining hot spot this year. The Maple Street shopping district–which has always had a lot of pedestrian traffic among its many shops and bars–got a couple of excellent new bistros this year. The Maple Street Cafe moved a block from where it started and greatly upgraded its offerings, creating for one of the most popular new Uptown restaurants this year.

Meanwhile, a half-block away, some young guys did a nice renovation of a 100-year-old Victoria cottage and called it Nautical. Chef Micah Martello was one of these; he’d come over from Charley G’s and put in an excellent menu before he shoved off. After a little imbalance, the place regained its equilibrium and is now very enjoyable.

One of the reasons my correspondents cite for liking Nautical and Cafe Marigny and a few other place shows another trend that picked up speed this year. These restaurants can’t serve alcohol, so customers are asked to bring in their own wine. Markups for wine and the base cost of wine having rising so much in recent years, that option has become very popular–so much so that I field many queries looking for other bring-your-own places. (Quite a few of those come from businesses looking to set up a first-class party but also looking to save money by bringing their own beverages.)

As I alluded earlier, the way things played out this year for some of the bigger investments by national chain restaurants might dissuade future operators from moving down here. I don’t want to name any names, but one outfit with very high hopes is doing about half its projections. Maybe it’s wishful thinking on my part, but it could be that the success the big chains have had with upscale restaurants in other parts of the country can’t be duplicated here. The local restaurant scene is just too strong, and even visitors from other places seem to know better than to waste a meal here in Food City dining in a restaurant they could visit back at home.

There’s sad news every year, and the bit of it that gave me pause was learning of the death of Douglas Leman. Douglas was the long-time maitre d’ at the Caribbean Room of the Pontchartrain Hotel. Indeed, I don’t remember a time when that crisply-attired, eminently sophisticated man wasn’t ont he front door of that restaurant. He embodied a style that’s not often seen these days: he was proud of his restaurant, but unlike the dining room managers of our time, he would eschew bragging about the place in favor of flattering his many regular (and irregular) customers. I can play back a line he said to me too many years for me to remember the occasion: “We’re so very happy to have you here, and I mean that sincerely!” We will not soon see his like.

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