You Either Love Them Or Hate Them
Dozen Most Controversial Restaurants
For every restaurant a range of opinions exists regarding its merits, or lack of them. This is a good thing, of course. If we all agreed on all restaurants, it would mean either a) there’s not enough variety in our restaurant scene or 2) the people in the community don’t think very hard about food.
The range these days is amplified by the rating system used by the online opinion surveys. If the “reviewer” liked the restaurant pretty well, it gets five stars. If there was some little but bothersome problem, the rating drops to one star. Few ratings fall in the middle.
In fact, most disagreements about restaurant goodness are minor. When someone writes to take issue with one of my restaurant reviews, I ask how he or she would rate the place, according to my system. Usually, the difference is only one star.
However, a few restaurants engender a genuinely wide spread in how they are regarded. Diners either love them or hate them, and think that anyone whose opinion is the opposite of their own must be crazy, tasteless or (in the case of a restaurant critic) clearly on the take.
Most such controversial restaurants fall into one of these categories:
1. Restaurants making big, unique statements with food, service, surroundings, success, or personality.
2. Restaurants with either very high or very low prices. Some people consider value received for the dollar the most essential measure of a dining experience. Others don’t.
3. Steakhouses and sushi bars. In both kinds of restaurant, many customers consider one place as being clearly the best in its field, and all the others sheer crap.
Here are the dozen restaurants most prone to inspiring an argument among their customers. There are plenty of such places–my first list ran to about thirty. I rank them by the severity of the disagreement and the importance of the restaurant to the dining scene. Not a factor: the degree to which I disagree with the prevailing current opinion.
1. Antoine’s. French Quarter: 713 St Louis. 504-581-4422. Antoine’s has been controversial, one imagines, since it opened its doors in 1840. It’s unique among the restaurants on this list in having defenders louder (but probably not more numerous) than its naysayers. Any published critic who ever bashed Antoine’s received a barrage of letters howling in pain from this attack on their holy place. This is easy to understand: the things that people love about Antoine’s–its antique premises, cooking and serving styles, and its traditions–are the very things that other people hate. Until recently, it was expensive, too.
2. Charlie’s Steak House. Uptown: 4510 Dryades. 504-895-9705. What Charlie’s fans wanted from the new owners who rescued it after the hurricane was to have it be exactly the same as it was. It’s hard to imagine that Matt Dwyer could have done that more perfectly. But hey! He raised the prices to normal instead of leaving them at the absurdly low level they had been. The old place had no significant fixed-cost overhead. Also, a lot of people don’t know that it’s the nature of a T-bone steak (the house specialty) to have fat, gristle, and a bone.
3. Andrea’s. Metairie: 3100 19th St. 504-834-8583. The food is so wildly inconsistent that it’s easy to understand that some people had the best meals of their lives here, while others had repasts so bad they haven’t been back since.
4. Domilise’s. Uptown: 5240 Annunciation. 504-899-9126. The appeal is the old, semi-seedy premises and the painstaking slowness of the service. What most people who disdain it mention is the overuse of ketchup.
5. Mandina’s. Mid-City: 3800 Canal, 504-482-9179. The always-packed house, and the non-availability of reservations, turn a lot of people away. When these finally show up, they do so with a show-me attitude. Sometimes the restaurant does show them (with the seafood, mostly). Sometimes (with Italian food) it doesn’t.
6. Jacques-Imo’s. Riverbend: 8324 Oak. 504-861-0886. This is the spitting image of the funky New Orleans style to a lot of people, who will accept anything brought to their table as The Real Stuff. Those who take the food and the crammed dining rooms at face value are much less impressed.
7. Galatoire’s. French Quarter: 209 Bourbon. 504-525-2021. The funny thing about Galatoire’s controversy is that it’s largely argued out at the restaurant’s own tables. The regular customers are the ones most likely to complain, mostly about the way everything allegedly used to be better.
8. Camellia Grill. Riverbend: 626 S Carrollton Ave. 504-309-2679 . Another example of the “it’s not as good as it used to be!” emotion. But that decline happened decades ago, before a lot of the people saying it were born.
9. Cochon. Warehouse District: 930 Tchoupitoulas. 504-588-2123. The idea of building a restaurant around the traditions of the Cajun boucherie is a good one. A lot of people–most on the young side or from elsewhere–are wowed by all of this. As were the national media, who after Katrina seemed to think this was the only restaurant in town. But others can’t figure what the big deal is all about.
10. Mother’s. CBD: 401 Poydras. 504-523-9656. Success–particularly among visitors, who hear that this is the place to have a real poor boy, gumbo, red beans, and like that–is killing Mother’s image among locals. They complain about the prices (higher than those of a neighborhood joint, but not in such a great location). But really, the food is exactly the same as it’s always been.
11. Shogun. Metairie: 2325 Veterans Blvd. 504-833-7477. Shogun was the city’s first sushi bar. It’s also the largest, and probably the busiest. But if that’s not enough to make the Brotherhood Of True Sushi Lovers turn away in anger, then the Benihana-style hibachi tables will do it. But the many regulars know how good that sushi bar really is.
12. Emeril’s. Warehouse District: 800 Tchoupitoulas. 504-528-9393. The controversy over Emeril’s–like most things the famous chef does–transcends the restaurant business. For a lot of people, successful winners are a threat to their self-esteem, and must be brought down a peg. If you look for something, you’ll find it, whether that’s a great meal or a deeply flawed one. I hear lots of reports of both kinds.