The Boom And Swerve Of 2012
The year just ended will be remembered for a little while as a big one for restaurants and their customers. But in the longer rear-view, I think it will go down as the beginning of a stylistic movement into a new era of dining out.
The major new restaurants in 2012–and there were more of them than in any year since the late 1990s–are large, expensively built, and showy. The curious thing is that most of them are casual eateries with down-to-earth food. No reservations, no tablecloths, no bread and butter, certainly no dress codes. Hamburgers and mac ‘n’ cheese are everywhere, often sharing menus with foie gras and caviar.
We see those phenomena in two kinds of restaurants. The first is exemplified by the most talked-about new establishment of the year, R’evolution. The new gourmet restaurant of the Royal Sonesta Hotel (Begue’s is officially dead) is operated by chefs John Folse and Rick Tramonto. Folse has been a major figure since the 1970s explosion of interest in Cajun cooking. Tramonto was a celebrity chef in Chicago, and became involved with New Orleans in the Katrina after-story.
R’evolution’s several dining environments are unique, artistic, comfortable, and distinctly local in style. All of its furnishings and service pieces are classy and beautiful. The wine cellar represents a seven-figure investment.
Yet only one of the dining rooms has tablecloths. The bar buzzes with people eating burgers and fries (among other items) as the bartenders invent new cocktails. The menu has a detectable Louisiana accent, but reaches out to customers with every kind of appetite: steak, Italian, seafood, and charcuterie, as well as contemporary Creole. Much of the food is manufactured in house, and a lot of the rest comes from local growers.
R’evolution barrels along on the currents of American cuisine. Hardly a person I’ve spoken with failed to be impressed by the place. On the other hand, the menu–parts of it displayed on iPads–has lost a lot of weight since opening day. And if you judge a restaurant by its powers of innovation, you may not be blown away.
A restaurant about which none of that can be said is Root. Chef-owner Philip Lopez became skillful at the art of transforming foods from their natural appearances to very different ones. That gimmick–inspired by Spanish chefs who cook as if they’re conducting chemistry experiments–makes one wary. But everything I’ve had from Lopez’s hand improved and concentrated the flavors, while delighting the mind throughout the meal. It’s so exciting, consistent and original that I hereby nominate Root as Best New Restaurant of 2012.
But Root is not a fine dining restaurant in the traditional sense. Its chairs are informal to just this side of patio furniture. The service is chummy and loose. The prices are even a bargain. But the plates are something to see as well as taste.
Other great openings this year also have a style bordering on that of the neighborhood café. John Besh’s seventh local restaurant, Borgne, for instance. Its model is the seafood joints of Delacroix and Yscloskey. It’s about time somebody did that. The cooking of the Isleños people around there is a fascinating annex of Creole cuisine. Although it’s a well-designed, large space in the newly-reopened Hyatt Regency Hotel, the feeling is decidedly downscale. And, therefore, popular.
The other side of the market–the national chains–also brought major new restaurants, mainly in Metairie. Bonefish Grill, Panera Bread and Pei Wei are all slick national outfits whose concepts and marketing greatly outclass the goodness of their food. They build large, comfortable restaurants, develop a handful of undeniably good dishes, and train their servers in all the tricks of the trade. All that grabs the average customer, and allows the restaurants to get away with serving much less than the best ingredients with all the imagination and localism you’d find in Anywhere, USA.
The New Orleans area until now has been relatively free of the chains, which dominate the dining scenes in most major American cities these days. Katrina scared a lot of them away–a fact we should remember more than we do. But they seem to have us targeted now. Many more such places are coming.
We also saw in 2012 the expansion of a regrettable but successful restaurant format: the fast-food cafeteria. The Mexican flavor of such restaurants are represented locally by Felipe’s and Izzo’s (and nationwide by Chipotle). You know how it goes: you pick a kind of tortilla, a meat, a cheese, a topping, a sauce, etc. Then you cross your fingers that this roll of the dice produces something better than a mishmash.
The new version of this idea just opened in the same neighborhood as the above chains (although I don’t think it is a chain). It’s called Romano’s Italian Street Food. Mix and match on top of quasi-pizza, pasta, or salad (!). Who needs chefs to tell us what to eat?
On a more exciting note, the number of restaurants with Magazine Street addresses passed sixty. The stretch between Washington and Louisiana Avenues is nearly as dense with eateries as the French Quarter. The variety beats even that, with almost every kind of restaurant represented. That’s been going on for some time, but the three Vietnamese restaurants that opened on Magazine are something new. But the sidewalk tables are still always full at The Rum House.
But the hippest part of town for new restaurants is unarguably the Bywater section. Maurepas Foods is the best of them, but others have joined the community of longtime Bywater restos like Elizabeth’s, The Joint Barbecue, and Jack Dempsey’s. No neighborhood dresses more casually when dining out.
The actual food we’re being served in the most forward-looking restaurants improved noticeably in 2012. More restaurants are getting their fresh products from local sources. The most interesting of these is the array of birds–notably ducks–from Chappapeela Farm on the North Shore. It’s allied with the already well-known Covey Rise Farm, which has been raising great specialty vegetables for some time now.
And it’s not just the high-end kitchens getting into this. Some kind of line was crossed when Ye Olde College Inn started serving hamburgers and beef Wellingtons from its own cattle farm, and vegetables from its patch across the street.
Distilling all the above with the other developments in dining this year results in this number: 1325. That’s how many real restaurants (that cook and serve on premises, are open to the public, and aren’t national chains) were open in the metro area as of December 31. This time last year the figure was 1236, giving a 2012 increase of 89 restaurants. In 2011, the increase was 60, so this growth is accelerating. The day before Katrina, the number was 809, for an increase since then of 516, or 64 percent in seven years.
An index of the health of the business is how it fared during the summer. In 2012, it did well, with the desperately dead time limited to August and September. As I say here seemingly every year, any restaurant that complains about slow volume needs to tune itself up. (And not, please, through the agency of those absurd restaurant makeover shows on food TV.)
We will not have to wait long before the growth continues. The Little Gem Saloon, after spending at least $5 million to renovate its classic Jazz Age structure on South Rampart at Poydras and hiring Chef Robert Bruce away from the Chophouse, will likely be the first new restaurant of note in 2013. Chef Andrea Apuzzo has already opened his new casual Andy’s Bistro in the former Metairie location of Sid-Mar’s, Gimchi, India Palace, the Butcher Shop, and around eight other restaurants that have come and gone there. Keith Young is renovating the old Coffee’s Boiling Pot in Madisonville, and plans to open a good seafood joint.
My pick for the biggest story in 2013: What will happen at Brennan’s on Royal Street? Vast amounts of contradictory legal papers have come my way, and I have no idea what the real situation is. It’s hard to imagine that Brennan’s–at times the world’s most profitable restaurant–will implode.
But, all the above said, it’s clear that 2012 was a great time to eat and drink in New Orleans. And that now we’re past the cliff 2013 will be another one.