The Year In Dining

The portents attributed to the magical year 2000 did not show up much in the New Orleans restaurant business.

Things were reasonably good for both restaurateurs and diners. But not outlandishly so. No equivalents of NASDAQ or the presidential election developed. No revolutions began.

That was fine with me. We had such an unrelenting flow of innovation in the late 1990s that there was a real need to distill it all down. Pressure to bring back the best old dishes lost along the way softened up menus all over town. Made them better, too.

Restaurants opened, closed, and changed–maybe more than usual. The options we have for dining out at the end of the year, as a result, are noticeably stronger than at the beginning.

Enough generalities. Here’s a list of what I thought were the most interesting and important developments on the local dining scene in the millennial year.

1. The Taste Buds. It’s a badly-kept secret that the founders of Semolina are no longer the tastemakers there. And it shows. Meanwhile, their new Zea Rotisserie Cafe in Clearview Mall is the runaway restaurant hit of the year. That they did this with a very quirky, innovative menu adds to the accomplishment.

2. Crawfish Disappear. The following is a fact: if you were served crawfish in any restaurant this year, you ate something whose quality was far below what you know and love. It might not even have been for here. The crawfish season was even worse than 1999’s, and one of the worst in anybody’s memory. I have yet to see any from this year’s brood–and we should have, by now.

3. The Prime Steakhouse Thing. After all that investment in spectacular new restaurants simply broiling first-class steaks, nobody has a big hit on his hands–except Dickie Brennan. And, of course, Ruth’s Chris, which continues to own the category, even though the local quality of the place has been largely buffed away.

4. Mike Ditka’s. When the ex-coach opened his spiffy, $2 million restaurant almost on the same day he got fired from his job with the Saints, almost everybody–myself included–scoffed. He was held in disdain by both the sports nuts and the foodies. Then Ditka, his wife Diana, and his Chef Christian Karcher surprised everybody by making the place into an urbane, excellent place to eat. The sports bar is as grunt as you’d expect, but everything about the main dining room is first-class.

5. Al Copeland Catches A Cold. What in the world is going on with our city’s premier chain restaurateur? After Zea Rotisserie Cafe ate his lunch at Straya on Veterans, he closed both Strayas to turn them into some new cheesecake restaurant concept. Closed totally, for a couple of months! Meanwhile, the small string of Wholly Mackerel cafes was shuttered and put up for lease. Whatever this is all about, it doesn’t look like an uptick.

6. Peristyle Returns from the Ashes. After burning badly at the end of last year, Peristyle remained closed for more than half the year. In the meantime, Chef Anne Kearney got married, and planned a much glitzier version of Peristyle to open with. A program to create an elite membership for regular diners didn’t sly, but everything else did, and the place is a contender for Best Restaurant In Town honors.

7. Renovation of Emeril’s. A couple of months’ worth of very heavy reconstruction of the star chef’s flagship establishment produced a place that looks a lot like the old place. But then you start to see the details. The frame around the food bar is especially striking. The chef’s table is now in a twilight zone between the kitchen and dining room. The latter seems a little quieter, and the former is more open to view. But you’re still not likely to see Emeril.

8. The Wine-Centered Restaurant. The enthusiasm and marketing savvy that California winemakers employed to turn a flood of juice into a seller’s market for wine has spilled over into the restaurant trade. Two major restaurants (Cuvee and 56 Degrees) opened with flagrant imperatives for you to select your bottle first and then think of the food later. Delmonico and Emeril’s also engage in this, to a lesser extent. While thinking wine first is very hip, it strikes me as backwards.

9. Crozier’s Flips. After 24 years of running the city’s most consistent and most French restaurant, Gerard and Eveline Crozier sold out to one of its customers and semi-retired. After a few months, some incomprehensible cavil developed between the new and old owners, with the result that the place is now called The French Table. The spirit is the same, but the menu is much expended–as is the restaurant itself. Meanwhile, the Crozier’s are part of a new Mid-City restaurant, soon to open.

10. Gourmet To Go. Even though Foodies Kitchen is busy to the limits of its undersized facility, the non-restaurant restaurant operations that are so popular in other cities have not really made a dent here yet.

11. Turning Point for the North Shore. Only one major new restaurant–Boule Prime House–opened in the past year in the Mandeville-Covington corridor. Unless you count the plethora of new chain places. Meanwhile, the pressure of opening Cuvee unfocused the Dakota group, which closed its Wine and Feed cafe and allowed CreOla to be much less than it could be. We will soon see whether the North Shore will be more like New Orleans (dominated by local restaurants) or Baton Rouge (chain-food city).

12. West End Area Slips Away. Frankie’s Cafe in Bucktown closed a few weeks ago, when its building was sold to make room for a condo. Such construction–and there are other projects–bids fair to bring an end to the raffish side of Bucktown. Meanwhile, Bruning’s has been prevented from rebuilding its old restaurant after the damage of the 1998 hurricane by a dispute with its insurance company. The temporary Bruning’s is always packed, but otherwise West End Park continues to languish.

13. Departures. In one week a month ago, we lost two long-time stalwarts. Yvonne Galatoire Wynne was the ultimate authority in her family’s operation of Galatoire’s for decades. She started working in the restaurant in the 1930s, and was as familiar a sight behind the desk as Galatoire’s old clock.

Lete Boulion, the co-founder of La Cuisine and a couple of restaurants before that, also joined the restaurant business in the 1930s. Even though several owners have passed through La Cuisine, the restaurant retains his stamp. His customers loved him, his wit, and his food. It’s strange to think these two seemingly eternal figures are no longer with us.

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