The Year In Dining

Nobody expected 2002 to be a year of expansion for the New Orleans restaurant business, and it wasn’t.

On the other hand, the only way you could call the year a disaster would be to compare it with the few previous years, when new restaurants were opening at the rate of about one every week or two, people were spending much more than ever, and chefs were effortlessly becoming celebrities.

Business is definitely off in most New Orleans restaurants. But not as much as it is in other serious food cities. Nor as much as some restaurateurs thought it would be.

The sharper operators had plans in motion for bringing in customers before it was even clear whether the scare of late last year would last. A wide range of special pricing schemes continue to fill my desk. While there’s been no great lowering of menu prices, some of the seasonal menus, wine dinners, early-evening specials, and anniversary celebrations included dollar figures of a kind hard to pass up.

The years 2000 and 2001 brought more major new restaurants than any time in local history. By the end of last year, the restaurant community was unquestionably overbuilt. So we didn’t see as many opening this past year. Here’s my list of the best new places in the past 15 months:

1. Lee Circle. A cooperative venture of the guys at Clancy’s and Le Parvenu, along with the new Le Cirque Hotel (where the restaurant’s located). A rather hard-edged, modern environment, but the food is very easy to tune into.

2. 124 Restaurant and Spirits. The best new restaurant on the North Shore is a gourmet bistro under a lifted-up old house. The casual circumstances–notably the awning-clad carport dining rooms–give no clue to the excellence of the cooking, which is substantial.

3. Belle Forche. The buzz on this was that Robert DeNiro owned a piece of it, but I haven’t heard that lately. What’s interesting is that Chef Matt Yohalem has swerved his version of Creole cooking in a Caribbean direction. That’s a great idea, since our cooking largely comes from the Caribbean to begin with. Late-night dining is another good resource this place offers.

4. Marigny Brasserie. It’s the relocated Café Marigny, but a very different and more substantial restaurant. After a few months with a former Lafitte’s Landing chef running things in a too-nouvelle style, the menu returned to its interesting and easy self, with some nice Spanish touches from the current chef. Late hours on weekends are a bonus.

5. Bourbon House. Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse was such a success that Dickie and company opened a seafood house in the same vein. It’s in the new Hotel Astor, and in its early days is impressive both in its surroundings and its menu. It’s the first place to offer oysters from many places, for example.

6. Cypress Bistro Covington. After a couple of years of great cooking in Mandeville, the owners had the opportunity to take over the City Club in Covington. They changed the name and largely duplicated all the successes of their first place–which remains delicious.

7. Sabai. The best of the many new Thai restaurants opening lately, this West Bank café cooks in a very different and delicious style from what we’re used to seeing.

8. Byblos Uptown. It’s in a lovely old building on Magazine near Louisiana, and expands upon the Middle-Eastern excellence the owners started in their first place on Metairie Road.

9. Pan-Asia. It’s in the former location of Gerard’s Downtown, and operated by the folks who brought us la Thai Cuisine and Bangkok Cuisine. This one, however, is as European as it is Asian, and even the latter aspect is as wide-ranging as the name suggests.

10. Laurentino’s. Hard to see but easy to get to (it’s behind Vincent’s in Metairie), this is a first-class Spanish restaurant. The management could use a few operational lessons, but the food is nothing but terrific.

Other good openings included Zeke’s, a fine seafood place on Metairie Road; Café Equator, a handsome Thai place across from Lakeside Mall; VooDoo Barbecue, which opened two places; Crabby Jack’s a poor-boy-and-short-order place from the owner of Jacques-Imo’s; and Daniel’s, a funny but fine little French bistro on Veterans.

Now, the other side of the coin. The number of significant restaurant closings in 2002 was not especially large, but it outstripped that of the few previous years, when almost nothing closed. Here, in order of intensity of regret, are the departed:

1. Gerard’s Downtown. Chef Gerard Maras went to work for Ralph Brennan, and they plan to open a new place together.

2. Odyssey Grill. A combination of health and help problems made Rosita Skias decide to close her fine little Mediterranean restaurant.

3. Armand’s, Waveland. The best restaurant on the Gulf Coast just gave up the ghost.

4. Mike Ditka’s. The second set of owners wasn’t nearly as talented as the first.

5. Petra. The Caddyshack guys made T.J. Qutob a good offer.

6. Portobello Café. It started as a caterer, and after a few months with an open dining room went back to catering only.

7. Maison Bleu. Disappeared one night. This one was on last year’s best-new list.

8. Red Sea. The city’s first Ethiopian restaurant met a variety of misfortunes.

9. Hummingbird Grill. An era ends as one of the definitive great sleazy eateries closes after many decades.

10. Hyde Park Grille. Didn’t make sense when it opened, and surprised nobody with its closing.

Happy New Year!

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