2006 In Dining: The Recovery

Written by Tom Fitzmorris December 31, 2006 04:03 in

The Year In Dining On the first day of 2006, Galatoire's reopened. It was the 418th restaurant to do so since the hurricane, and the perfect first restaurant opening of the new year. It was fervently welcomed. The absence of that iconic Creole restaurant hurt in a cold way, especially during the Christmas holidays. We were bereft of most of the other eternal restaurants, too. Antoine's, Brennan's, Commander's Palace and Broussard's also missed Christmas. Along with about half of the 809 real restaurants that operated in the New Orleans area before the storm. As the year ends, we're much relieved to note that the list of open restaurants stands at 725. (I count any establishment that cooks and serves on the premises, except for fast-food and most chain restaurants, bars, coffeehouses, and other minimal food operations. The list can be viewed here: www.nomenu.com/RestaurantsOpen.html.) The first month or so of 2007 promises to add the last few remaining missing pieces to the dining scene, as Tony Angello's, Mr. B's, Mandina's, and the Crescent City Steak House get back into action. Now, get this: I predict the population of local restaurants will surpass its pre-storm total sometime in 2007. How is this possible? One reason is that, of the restaurants that have reopened, few have failed. In fact, New Orleans is almost certainly the major American city with the fewest restaurant closings in 2006. Only three restaurants reopened, then closed. (In contrast, the number of closings in Houston is in three figures.) A few restaurateurs gave up the fight, but found immediate buyers for their restaurants, which kept on going. It's easy to find restaurateurs who bellyache about how bad business is, and how they don't know how they're going to make it. Especially in the French Quarter, where the lack of visitor business at the levels to which they'd become accustomed has hurt badly. But many of these same people are expanding their hours. I don't expect we'll see any more closings in 2007 than in a normal year. And probably fewer, because the weakest restaurants have already been culled by the storm. Is business as bad as they say? Yes, it is--compared with the last ten years. It looks more like the middle 1980s, which weren't as good as the early 2000s. But those years weren't really all that bad. Like many aspects of the recovering New Orleans area, we have a regression to conditions of a quarter-century ago. Which, if you'll recall, were not really so horrible. The big problem facing restaurants these days continues to be an excruciating shortage of personnel. Some recent strategies to ameliorate this are novel. Ti Martin of Café Adelaide says that she has several Russians and some other Eastern Europeans working as waiters and cooks. Recent meals at Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse revealed a wait staff that was nearly as polyglot and exotic as what you'd find on a cruise ship. Housing, of course, is the root cause of the labor shortage. No comprehensive solutions seem to be in the offing, unfortunately. Be prepared for less polished service in all restaurants during the next year. It will make the problems that crop up easier to ignore. The experience of a certain few restaurants capture (for me, anyway) the lay of the land at year's end. So, if I may. . . Comeback Of The Year. Antoine's came out of the storm with shocking damage, giving rise to speculation that it might never open again. Its original building, including its front dining room, almost collapsed. What's more, much of its staff comes from the same families that have worked there for generations. A large percentage of those lived in wiped-out St. Bernard Parish, and lost their homes, as did most of their families. Nevertheless, Antoine's was the first of the great old Creole restaurants to reopen, on December 29, 2005. Fortunately, it's big enough that it could continue operating while the original building underwent deep reconstruction. The loss of staff was harder to work around, though, and for most of the year Antoine's was open only five meals a week, serving a menu about half the size of its old one. However, Antoine Alciatore's descendants took the opportunity to rethink its whole operation. What's come out of that is the first stage of what looks to me like a renaissance. Three or four years from now, if they go ahead with what CEO Rick Blount is planning, Antoine's will enter a new golden age, without losing its personality. They are planning to spend more on this than has been spent on any single New Orleans restaurant in history. It's the most encouraging story I've covered all year. Most Frustrating Reopening. Commander's Palace didn't look too badly damaged after the storm. But, as co-proprietor Lally Brennan aptly complained, "It's been Pandora's box!" Simple repairs revealed a seemingly never-ending parade of major problems. For example, while pulling out moldy insulation, they discovered that an entire wall had rotted loose from its foundation. The reopening date for Commander's seemed to run farther into the future the harder the Brennans chased it. They didn't catch up until the last week of September. But some good came out of it: the downstairs main dining room has a great new look, and the kitchen was rebuilt from the ground up with state-of-the-art equipment. Problem: not enough staff to book every table. For a few weeks, Commander's was running commercials on my radio show not to attract customers, but potential employees. New world. Greatest Mystery. I am asked this question at least once daily: "Will Charlie's Steak House reopen, and when?" All my efforts to answer this have failed, and nothing's happening on Dryades Street. We may have lost the grubby old Uptown steak joint, but maybe not. I wish I knew. Greatest Relief. Tony Angello's is not only in Lakeview, but close enough to the levee break that the water went above the level of its ceilings. And flowed for days. And sat for weeks. Meanwhile, Mr. Tony passed his seventy-ninth birthday. What would you do if you were he? Rebuild and reopen, of course. The extraordinarily popular restaurant will probably be back in January. And even with most of its neighborhood still deserted, it will be a packed house every night. It's been a weird year. But the restaurant business has be rivaled only by the port as the part of New Orleans that's performed its role most perfectly. I think they're heroes.