The pivotal moment of 2007 for New Orleans restaurant fans was April 16. That was the day Mr. B’s Bistro reopened for the first time since the hurricane.
B’s was the last major restaurant return we were sure was coming. And, by a happy coincidence, it brought the total number of restaurants open in the New Orleans area to 809–the same number of real eateries we had the day before Katrina hit.
What happened to Mr. B’s after that recapitulates the story of the local restaurant business as a whole this past year. After packing the house for a month or so, B’s descended into the summer doldrums. Everybody knew that was coming–it always does–but that doesn’t make it hurt any less. Most restaurants soldiered on through August and September, bolstered by good volume in the early summer, especially in June.
But September was its usual bitter self for all tourism-related businesses. The pace of restaurant closings was the worst since the storm. Two were especially regrettable: Coyoacan, the best Mexican restaurant in New Orleans history, and Table One, the fun two-story bistro on Washington at Magazine, with Gerard Maras in the kitchen.
Then it was October, and suddenly it was pretty near to like old times. So many visitors were in town that, for the first time since K, Antoine’s reopened on a seven-day schedule. It has kept that up since then, occasionally filling the entire restaurant with customer counts in four figures. The fall season, and the promise of next spring, has many restaurateurs finally talking about something other than their recovery progress.
Despite all that, a bartender I know quit at Mr. B’s. “The business isn’t there,” he said. “It’s not like it used to be.”
A bartender at Mr. B’s makes the best part of his living on tips from people waiting for their tables to open up. So the dining room can be full (and it has been close to that all the times I’ve gone), but the holding pattern remain empty. In other words, the cup is full, but not flowing over. And it’s all relative to what you know before. We had some truly fantastic years before the storm came. But you don’t have to go too many years back to find the market much like it is now.
With one exception. There has never been a time in New Orleans history when it had as many discussable restaurants as it has now. The year will end with about 890 restaurants in business–about ten percent more than in 2004. What’s more, even the total number of hours that all restaurants are open appears to have caught up with the pre-storm total. And that includes everything from poor boy shops to establishments for haute cuisine.
So much for generalities. Here are the most interesting developments on the restaurant scene in the past year:
The John Besh connection. Besh, the owner-chef of Restaurant August, already had in that restaurant a contender for Best Restaurant in Town. But then he bought La Provence from his old mentor Chris Kerageorgiou, who passed away shortly after that deal was consummated. A couple of months ago, Besh brought in Rene Bajeux–probably the best French chef in these parts–as chef and partner at La Provence. It’s a perfect match, and can almost not help but become one of the best restaurants in the area in the next few months. Meanwhile, Besh opened yet another restaurant–his fourth–in the new Hilton on St. Charles Avenue next to One Shell Square. Luke has touches of French, German, and old New Orleans Creole cafes in its rustic menu, and has delighted most who have been there. (Although the service staff hasn’t gelled yet.)
The burgeoning of Poydras. All sorts of good news for diners near the foot of Poydras Street. Drago’s opened a big new restaurant in the Hilton. Harrah’s Hotel opened Riche, a very handsome French (but now Creole) restaurant with a front onto gussied-up Fulton Street. The Windsor Court finally got its culinary act together by hiring Chef Greg Sonnier, whose efforts to reopen his Gabrielle slammed into power politics. And Wayne Baquet opened a branch of his excellent Creole café Li’l Dizzy’s in the Whitney on Camp at Poydras.
Ethnic proliferation. As it always does, the more exotic ethnic restaurants of the area have concentrated themselves in the outlying areas of the city more than in town itself. All the Asian cuisines, but particularly Thai and Japanese, have ballooned. Even the sleepy Chinese restaurant department has seen many new players this year.
Best new openings (other than those already mentioned). Bistro Daisy on Magazine Street; Patois, which replaced Nardo’s on Webster at Laurel; Café Arabesque, N. Carrollton off Canal; Café Minh, Canal off N. Carrollton.
Best surprising news. Charlie’s Steak House, with new owner, will reopen imminently (if it isn’t already). Charles Sea Foods in Harahan, same story, but already there. Maximo’s in the French Market area will return with the old owner and chef shortly. And Horst Pfiefer, formerly owner of Bella Luna, bought Middendorf’s.
Regretted Departures. In addition to those already mentioned, New Orleans lost some great restaurants and restaurateurs this year. The corner of St. Charles and Josephine had particularly bad luck. Both the Pontchartrain Hotel (which is being converted into a non-hotel) as well as the man who ran it for many years, Albert Aschaffenburg, died. Across the street, Mr. John’s Steakhouse lost its namesake, John Santopadre, who also at various times owned Café Giovanni, Smilie’s, and Tastee Donuts. (Mr. John’s was sold and is still excellent, however.)
Other restaurant closings of note: Longbranch In Abita Springs, Alberta on Magazine Street, Mandina’s in Baton Rouge, and D. Lamarque’s in Mandeville.
More people to whom we said a sad good-bye: Iler Pope, former owner of Café Atchafalaya and Dante By The River; Bob Artigues, the long-time maitre d’ at Pascal’s Manale; and Josie Roccobono, who opened the Peppermill three decades ago. And as I write this, Al Copeland, founder of Popeye’s and his eponymous restaurants, is struggling for his life against cancer.
Finally, in a class by himself to the end, Harry Tervalon passed away after fifty years of waiting the counter at the Camellia Grill. He was in the opinion of many the best waiter in the annals of the business, and a one-man end of an era.