The two worst things that happened to the New Orleans restaurant community in 2011 were the Saints and LSU.
Ask any restaurateur about Saturday nights and Sunday brunches during the past seven months. Dining rooms where reservations always had been critical have lately been like mausoleums if black and/or purple and gold were on their gridirons. Not even filling dining rooms with screens helped. And when Antoine’s turns two gilt-framed mirrors in its bar into wide-screen televisions (as they have), you know that so is every other restaurant.
Other than that, any moaning you hear about slack volume will come only from a restaurateur who isn’t trying very hard, doesn’t know what he’s doing, or enjoys complaining.
Even the roughest patches this year proved to be smoother than expected. The aftereffects of the oil spill? No problem at all, except in the oyster industry. And even there, not one restaurant of note ever had a problem getting Louisiana oysters all year long. The terrible months of August and September? The new Restaurant Week and Coolinary promotions did very well for those operators who got involved.
Here are the statistics. This time last year, the count of New Orleans-area restaurants was 1128. As I write this in mid-December, it’s 1236. Over a hundred new restaurants in one year! The increase in 2010 was 60. The pace of openings has almost doubled. The week before Katrina, we had 809 restaurants. We now have over 50 percent more. No other American city can make such a claim.
To even an avid cheerleader for the local dining scene, these facts beg for explanation. I have only two theories. First, the generation now entering economic adulthood are sons and daughters of people for whom eating frequently in restaurants is normal. In contrast, the parents of the Baby Boom generation considered dining out a luxury. Many of them (my own parents, for example) never ate in restaurants.
Second, it’s a lot easier to open a place that serves pizza, hamburgers, and poor boys than a seafood house or a gourmet bistro, let alone a grand restaurant. And such very simple menus were what the restaurant investors and chefs were busy with this year. The most flagrant was Chef Adolfo Garcia, the owner of the superb RioMar, La Boca, and A Mano. This year, he added to his empire Gusto, an eat-at-your-seat cafe in the movie theater at Canal Place. Ancora, a pizza parlor. And High Hat, a neighborhood sandwich-and-short order café.
Those last two are both on Freret Street between Jefferson and Napoleon Avenues. The burgeoning of restaurants in that stretch is certainly the most interesting story of the year on my beat. Here was a neighborhood that had to come back from severe Katrina flooding, and had been on a decades-old decline even before the storm.
Just after the streets dried out, a very hip bar called Cure brought attention to the area. Then a few other eat-drink establishments opened. Critical mass was achieved when Dat Dog–the best hot dog stand in the history of New Orleans– opened in a grubby shed on Freret. Dat Dog created lines down the sidewalk. Next thing, the buzz was that Company Burger had the best hamburgers in town. And Midway Pizza the best Chicago-style pizza. All on Freret, with more to come.
Elsewhere, some of the city’s other best chefs opened very casual cafes focusing on hamburgers. Hamburgers? How could anyone in his right mind believe that not enough hamburgers are being cooked here? “But we use Kobe beef,” they said. “We double-grind in house, hand-pat them to order. Mixture of round, short rib, and skirt steak–the perfect combination for a hamburger!” they said, as we move perilously close to that hell in which chefs must explain everything about their food in the hopes that it becomes alluring. I’d like to see a blind tasting competition between all these ten-dollars-and-up burgers and some without all the pedigrees.
The pizza thing was not quite as silly, but still over the top. Does importing a wood-burning oven from Naples made from stone quarried from Mount Vesuvius make a better pizza? Well, it sounds like it does. These days, that’s almost enough to convince people to accept as brilliant flaccid pizza crusts and underwhelming toppings. Same effect is achieved by a pizza parlor’s making its own sausage, salami and mozzarella. Mind over matter? We need another blind tasting of all this house-made salumi (the hip food word of 2011) against the best of what we already had at half the price. Meanwhile, the pretentiousness in these places is reaching levels not seen since the heyday of formal French restaurants we had in the mid-1980s.
Fortunately, it remains clear that the best dining comes from chefs more interested in what tastes good than what sounds good, and in creating instead of pandering. The best new restaurant of this year is Rue 127, a minuscule gourmet bistro in Mid-City. Chef Ray Gruezke left Le Foret (last year’s best new restaurant) to take over a failed Middle Eastern restaurant in a well-renovated cottage. Appetizers to desserts, the menu creates the wonderful effect that you want to try everything on it. It’s just familiar and just innovative enough. Even in such small circumstances (only 30 seats) and at such prices (some entrees don’t cross the $20 line), the cooking is brilliant and thoroughly satisfying.
The most promising development of the year is also in Mid-City. Redemption, the restaurant that took over the old church that for thirty years was Christian’s, picked up momentum slowly after it opened early in 2011. But a recent development bodes well for its immediate future. Chef Greg Picolo’s Bistro at the Maison de Ville came to a nasty end in August, putting his great talents on the street. He’s now the chef at Redemption. His first act: redevelop the smoked soft-shell crab that Christian’s was famous for. He’s still moving in, but I expect this will turn Redemption into a great restaurant in 2012.
It’s been a delicious year, if you ask me.