The Year In Dining.

For diners and restaurateurs, 2009 was less than the gleeful, sybaritic banquet of better years. The focus remains more on the past and the future than the present.

Nevertheless, all but the usual complainers are upbeat. The essential tide of travelers will continue to pay for more major restaurants than in any other American city our size. Chefs have enough confidence in our local ingredients and (to a lesser degree) our local flavors, and have backed away from aping Gourmet Magazine. Good thing. Gourmet published its final issue in November.

On January 1, 980 restaurants were cooking and serving on premises in the metro New Orleans area. That was already up 179 restaurants from the restaurant population before Katrina. As I write this on December 15, the figure stands at 1045. The one-thousandth restaurant opened in April, marking the first time New Orleans had so many eateries.

That is a remarkable statistic. Everywhere else in America–and in the country as a whole–the restaurant population dropped significantly during 2009. If we were still filling in holes left by Katrina, that would be one thing. But that deficiency has long since been filled, and we’re still growing.

More large, upscale restaurants opened this year than in the past several. Most growth in 2006-2008 was in neighborhood cafes. Those continue to proliferate, but the interest in opening big-deal dining venues has resumed.

The biggest white-tablecloth splash was the reopening of the Roosevelt Hotel. Three major new eateries came with it: the restored Sazerac and Blue Room, and the new Domenica. The latter is John Besh’s fifth restaurant; he followed it with a unique 1940s-style diner in the World War II Museum. Besh now has twice as many New Orleans restaurants as Emeril, and as many as any two branches of the Brennan family here.

The first new gourmet room of note this year actually opened at the end of last year, but few knew it was there until weeks into 2009. Coquette took over an ill-starred location on Magazine at Washington Avenue, with a handful of ex-Commander’s Palace employees in charge. Back when I reviewed it in May, I called it the best new restaurant of the year so far.

Most notable among other contenders for that distinction is Le Meritage. Its chef Michael Farrell took over the former Dominique’s in the Maison Dupuy Hotel, and installed one of the most innovative menus in town. It wasn’t so much the food (well wrought, but familiar) as the format that bid for our attention. The entire menu is available in either appetizer or entree portions, with small or large glasses of wine to match. Most people go for many small ones, often with no big ones. It took months before the restaurant caught on, but it’s busy now.

Le Meritage took hold of what is certainly the most pervasive trend in upscale dining this year: small plates. All three of Emeril’s restaurant have embraced this concept, with long lists of appetizer-size dishes dominating the offerings. Tapas is everywhere. And we even got our first traditional dim sum restaurant, the Panda King in Gretna. The meal of the moment has many little courses.

Two new restaurants and one resurrected one enlivened the Italian category. John Besh’s Domenica made a big splash in the summer with its vast array of house-made cured and smoked meats (another active trend) and its five-ton stone, wood-burning pizza oven. Still hard to get a table there. In October, Chef Adolfo Garcia (RioMar, La Boca) raised some eyebrows when he said that his new A Mano in the Warehouse District would serve the first real Italian food ever hereabouts. Like Besh, he’s making a lot of salumi.

The returnee is Maximo’s, which for fifteen years before the hurricane was one of the most exciting trattorias in town. It didn’t reopen, though, until new owners and the old chef did so early in 2009. It’s as good and hip as ever, if not more so, with its Tuscan-style fire-roasting.

As the year wound down to a close, a low buzz emanated from the corner of Camp and Common. There a new restaurant called La Foret, whose chef arrives with a good resume, opened to serve what looks like a contemporary French menu with some Creole flavors. I’ll tell you about it in this space next year.

Finally, the West Bank got its first new glitzy gourmet room in many years when the Royal Palm opened in a Las Vegas-style mall in Harvey. With Chef Robert Bruce in the kitchen, this may be the handsomest restaurant ever on the West Bank, which one would think could use some auspicious restaurants. The house may be too big for the customer base, though.

So much for beginnings. The New Orleans dining community lost a few major names in 2009. Archie Casbarian, who thirty years ago acquired the famous wreck that was Arnaud’s and turned it back into a brilliant, gleaming restaurant, died as the year opened. His wife and children were already fully engaged in operating Arnaud’s, and the restaurant didn’t miss a beat. Archie was at least as smart as he was urbane and classy. He finished very high on the all-time list among New Orleans restaurateurs.

Chef Gerard Crozier’s final restaurant, Chateaubriand, was one of the most regretted casualties of Katrina. It caused him and his wife to leave town and retire from cooking after almost 50 years behind the stove–33 of them here. The best French bistro chef in New Orleans history, Gerard was working at Wal-Mart in Knoxville, still jogging every day and playing lots of golf, when in September he died at home at 64. Our hopes that he would return ended.

In May, we drank a final toast to the man who inspired more New Orleanians to drink good wine than anyone else. Max Zander went against type as a wine connoisseur, eschewing snobbery and sharing his great knowledge and taste about wine in an entertaining, chummy way. His career (he headed the city’s biggest wine wholesale house) began in the 1950s, when hardly anybody drank wine seriously. He was still encouraging us to pull corks almost to the day he died, at 84.

As for 2010: look for soft menu prices, few closings, still more openings, and the long-awaited boom in Hispanic restaurants. All while we wonder whether the next generation of diners will ever take up drinking chicory coffee, eating red beans and rice, or Ramos gin fizzes at the Roosevelt.

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