The Year In Dining.

A restaurant owner looking for an excuse for a bad 2010 can find it easily enough. The BP oil spill made everyone suspicious about the quality of the seafood in New Orleans restaurants. Meanwhile, instead of going out to eat, a lot of us wasted many leisure hours staring at the video from the Gulf floor of the oil plume.

Or the distressed restaurateur could fall back on the recession and its reputed destruction of all profits. Or Katrina, although that dodge is wearing thin.

However, he probably has only himself to blame. Because 2010 was, on average, a surprisingly good year for the restaurant biz. From the top to the bottom, the past year was better than anyone expected.

The number of restaurants continued to increase. At the beginning of the year, we had 1068 restaurants operating in the New Orleans area. With two weeks left to the year, the count is up to 1128. Before Katrina: 809. (These numbers come from the New Orleans Menu Restaurant Index, and includes restaurants that cook and serve on premises, but not fast food chains, delivery- or takeout-only restaurants, and a few other kinds of minimal food vendors.) There have been few closings through the year, only two of them major (Le Parvenu and Carmine’s.)

More impressive, though, is what happened in the French Quarter. All the predictions for the year past spoke of a decent spring but a gaping abyss during the summer, followed by a slow climb out of the hole in the fall.

But even restaurateurs with a record of perennial dissatisfaction said, “It wasn’t too bad.” Which translates into “Terrific!” Those whose words don’t require subtitles said things like these:

“It was the best summer in the twenty-year history of the restaurant.”–Richard Hughes, Pelican Club.

“We had a really great summer.”–Duke Locicero, CafĂ© Giovanni.

“We were up by fifteen percent over last year.”–Andrea Apuzzo, Andrea’s.

“For the first time in years, I didn’t have to take out a loan to make payroll in September.”–Name withheld by request.

In my own daily investigations of the restaurants, I never saw an extended period at any point during the year when dining rooms were totally dead. And remember: summer was the darkest time during the oil spill crisis.

This is not to say that the spill was without effects. Seafood restaurants took a big hit, so worried were diners that the fish and shellfish was contaminated. But our taste for shrimp, redfish and crabs are strong, and most of us resumed those eating habits soon enough. And why not? Even during the worst days of the oil spill, not one instance of poisoned Louisiana seafood ever turned up in any restaurant or store anywhere.

Despite that, some restaurateurs exacerbated the problem. Word that some of them were suing BP or were even closing entirely added less than nothing to public confidence in their product.

Thank goodness, the restaurants with fortitude kept on going. Drago’s, whose menu relies very heavily on oysters–the most endangered seafood of them all–managed to get through the whole crisis with only three shifts barren of oysters. The oyster industry still has a major problem, because many of the best beds were killed–not by oil, but by fresh water sent down to keep the oil out. Still, have you failed to find Louisiana oysters lately in a restaurant where you expected to find them? Me neither.

On a more appetizing note, we saw an encouraging trend in the kind of new restaurants that opened. For most of the time since the hurricane, the majority of new restaurants were modest cafes, poor boy shops, and other mom-and-pop operations. This year, every few months a new restaurant with grand surroundings and an ambitious menu opened.

The most impressive of these was Meson 923, a Creole-New American restaurant in the Warehouse District. It began with Chris Lynch–formerly the top guy in the kitchen at Emeril’s–devising the menu. He stayed only a few months, and a new chef and menu are there now, not long enough to make a solid judgment. But there’s no question that this is a much more substantial place than most of the new restaurants of the past few years.

Two more newcomers of note are in the gourmet bistro category. Dominique’s on Magazine marks the return of Chef Dominique Macquet to the mainstream, after he left his former venue in the Maison Dupuy Hotel about two years ago. The new place has a much stronger New Orleans accent than Dominique’s past restaurants, and a more rustic style than the handsome dining room might have you predict.

In the French Quarter, Sylvain opened in a historic building on Chartres Street. Its menu is even more casual but no less ambitious. This seems to be the trend: dishes that would only have been seen in neighborhood cafes twenty years ago, now gussied up and with nudged-up prices, are the new gourmet cuisine.

Last year in this space, I mentioned en passant the just-opened Le Foret, and promised to say more this year. In a stunningly renovated building on Camp and Common, Le Foret has emerged as the best new restaurant since the hurricane. The food is polished, innovative, and comfortably familiar. The wine cellar and service staff are in a league with the five-star New Orleans restaurants. A few weeks ago, I added Le Foret to that august list. I hope it sets a trend.

But here’s what’s actually coming. More expensive hamburgers. More tapas restaurants. More poor boy shops. (We already have more than at any time in the city’s history. Less good Chinese food, and more Chinese restaurants turning to buffets. A big new restaurant in the Royal Sonesta Hotel, operated by Chef John Folse and Chicago superstar chef Rick Tramonto. A seafood restaurant called Redemption in the former Christian’s. A restaurant operated by Archie Manning and sons in the Harrah’s Hotel complex. A new Ralph Brennan restaurant on Metairie Road at Labarre. The closing of Ralph’s Bacco, and its possible return outside the Quarter. And uncertainty at Cuvee, which has closed for at least the remainder of the year.

Second only to the oil spill in the Shocking News Department in 2010 was the announcement early in the year that Galatoire’s has been sold by most of the Galatoire family owners to John Georges and Todd Trosclair. It soon became clear that these well-financed fellows were more interested in maintaining the restaurant as an essential, unique cultural establishment than in turning it into a money machine. We all had another Sazerac, tightened our ties, and breathed a sigh of relief.

We end with a fond good-bye to Jimmy Brennan, who died this summer. Jimmy was one of the three brothers who operated Brennan’s on Royal Street since the 1973 Brennan family split. He was responsible for Brennan’s world-class wine cellar. With brother Pip Brennan pushed out of management a couple of years ago, this leaves Ted Brennan alone at the great, historic Brennan’s.

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