The Year In Dining

As is true of everything else in New Orleans, thinking about the world of dining in the past year quickly turns to just the last four months. And the first two of those seem blurry.

The story of one restaurant gives a good picture of how things have progressed. On October 4, Cuvee opened for the first time since the hurricane. It was one of the first gourmet restaurants to come back. I managed to get manager Chris Ycaza on the phone a day before it did (remember how hard it was to reach anyone in those days?). He said, “A lot of people are working on the recovery in hotels around here, and we’re thrilled to serve them. We’re doing a limited menu of comfort food like meatloaf, with a few signature specials.”

Then he outlined the extraordinary measures required to operate. All plates, utensils, and napery were single-use: disposable. All the water used for any purpose was bottled, even if the water was boiled. They even used bottled water for washing hands.

It sounded right at the time. The city had departed from full modern civilization, and we all thought that it was necessary that we adapt by limiting our ambitions. Meat loaf at Cuvee? Red beans from Chef John Besh, around the corner? You did what you had to do in the emergency.

But it turned out that none of that was necessary, after all. FEMA workers didn’t go to Cuvee for meat loaf and fried catfish. But regular customers from before the storm did show up, looking for Cuvee’s normal offerings of foie gras, scallops, and duck.

Where did they come from? The city had only begun to allow people back into town, and few were here. But it seemed as if all those people made it a top priority to get into a restaurant for dinner. And not just sustenance, but a great dinner with better wines than they would have ordered in the past.

It turned out the running water had never been all that bad after all, and restaurants got the okay to use it. China and silverware and cloth napkins returned to Cuvee, and with it came an abbreviated version of the terrific cuisine Chef Bob Iacovone had served before all hell broke loose.

That’s also when John Besh reopened Restaurant August for regular service. With foie gras, fresh almond-encrusted fish, soft-shell crabs, and as much else of his classy menu as he could obtain and cook. My first post-K dinner at August (also my first visit to a gourmet house after returning home in early October) is forever crystallized in my memory. The bar was packed with VIPs waiting for reservations, running an hour late. “Nobody wants to leave!” said the maitre d’. “They’re enjoying being out and with their friends too much!”

When we finally sat down, the waitress drifted by and said with a laugh, “Hi, welcome to August! I’ll see you in a half-hour!” The big, persistent problem showed itself: not enough restaurant employees. Servers took care of three times their normal number of tables, without busboys. Two cooks did the work of ten.

Yet no customers were upset with the delays. They just ordered another round of drinks, and continued visiting with friends. Everybody in the place was local, and most people knew most other people there. Everybody ordered big dinners and bigger wines. Far from resembling the requiem that our city was alleged to be performing, the restaurant hosted a celebration.

It was like that in every restaurant that opened anywhere around town. Record-breaking business, done with a skeleton staff (with, often, a major appendage missing from the skeleton). All the customers were locals. Those who came in to aid in the recovery or make money from it either did the free feed on the riverfront or stood in ridiculous fast-food lines.

As soon as the word on that got out, there was a burst of restaurant reopenings. I was tracking them on my website, and in the second week of October I added almost 50 restaurants to the list–still the biggest burst of openings since the storm.

These restaurants were not serving meat loaf and Kool-Aid. They acted almost as if nothing had happened, because that’s what their customers wanted them to do. The hours and menus were abbreviated by staff shortages. Some restaurants were missing carpet or hadn’t yet painted the new Sheetrock. But the dining was 90 percent like it had been before the storm. And the moods of the customers were 150 percent what they’d been.

Restaurants open for a couple of months now tell me that they started with about a quarter of their normal staff, but that the figure has creeped up slowly. Fifty percent is now more typical. A few restaurants say they’re approaching a full staff, at least for the number of shifts that they’re open right now.

The most pleasant surprise in the recovery of the restaurant business was the easy availability of foodstuffs, especially seafood. The gut feeling among chefs and diners alike in the early weeks after the storm was that we would be denied our local seafood and forced to eat Chinese crawfish etouffee and tilapia meuniere with Indonesian crabmeat on top. In fact, seafood has been relatively plentiful (not as much is coming in, but on a per-customer basis it’s at least as much as before). Better still, the quality has been superb by any standard. Even oysters, which some said would be two years in coming back, are available and excellent.

As I write this, my list of open restaurants (still updated daily at www.nomenu.com) just went past 400. A comparable list (not including fast food or most chains, although I do count poor boy shops and such) before the hurricane would have listed about 1200 restaurants.

Right after Christmas, a swell of reopenings will begin, and I expect that the number will shoot past 500 in the first week or two of the New Year, and continue at that pace until summer. By that time, I expect–based on conversations with restaurateurs as to their plans–that the list will include between 800 and 900 restaurants.

One interesting side note to this renaissance is that brand-new restaurants that did not exist before the storm have begun to open. Most noteworthy among those is Alberta on Magazine Street, Longbranch in Abita Springs, a major restaurant in the fondue chain Melting Pot on St. Charles Avenue, and Ohi’a, Vicky Bayley’s new tapas bar on Lee Circle.

In other words, we’ll have quite a restaurant scene here come summer. There will be some permanent losses. But this will still be a great place to eat. Perhaps even better, if the current leaning toward local flavors continues.

As for what happened in the first eight months of the year, it’s as if we only read about it in a book.

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