Open for Business

A post-Katrina visit to the restaurants of New Orleans, where eating out has become essential group therapy

In December I had dinner with friends at Lilette, a French bistro with exceptionally polished food on Magazine Street, in New Orleans. The friends, the menu, and the well-heeled, old-line crowd were identical to those at a dinner I’d had at the same restaurant in late July. If anything, the room had a brighter gleam, and the food was even better than before—more focused, as if the cooks were taking a special, private pleasure in doing what they know how to do. The only visible differences from my visit five months earlier were the view through the plate-glass windows of lined-up branches, disembodied kitchen cabinets, and mattresses heaped on the sidewalk, and a bright-pink sign from the Office of Public Health taped to the front door: Approved for Re-opening Following Hurricane Katrina.

Of course, much was very different. Our young waiter had run several city magazines that vanished with the storm; he came back because he didn’t want to leave the city. Other friends at a table I later joined talked of how many times they had moved in the past three months, the gas and hot water that were still sometime things, and whether their jobs would continue and they could keep paying the rent, which rose after the storm. The bonhomie at our long table both masked and was fueled by their having no idea how long they could afford to live in the place they loved most.

This was how it went over several days of dining in New Orleans restaurants that had reopened as soon as they could: immaculate food prepared and consumed with joy, need, and uncertainty. At August, a tony restaurant with what may be the most ambitious and original food in the city, Tywon Morgan, a host, practically danced up and down the stairs between the kitchen and the banquet room. He explained when he stopped by our table. “Our first private party!” he said. “Sixty people! Business is coming back!”

He was reflecting the anxious optimism I had heard expressed by restaurant owners in recent days. They were hoping for customers in three waves of increasing magnitude: families and business people who would return for the opening of schools in January—the first test of how many residents would actually come back; revelers for Mardi Gras, which, everyone hoped, would kick-start the crucial tourist trade; and conventioneers, the biggest question mark of all, who would trickle back as early as spring.

John Besh, the chef and co-owner of August, cooked as if he were unconcerned. True, the city’s wine supply had been badly depleted. “Definitely a post-K list,” said Brett Anderson, the restaurant critic of TheTimes-Picayune and my friend and guide, as he opened August’s leather-bound wine menu. Lolis Eric Elie, a columnist for the paper and, like Anderson, a passionate, witty chronicler of city life since the storm, reminded him of the many wine cellars that had been lost completely, notably the 5,000 bottles at Susan Spicer’s Bayona.

But the food was even better than what I had tasted in July. A plate of chilled seafood was startlingly fresh, with little crescents of Louisiana shrimp and beautifully sweet crabmeat in ravigote sauce, the Tabasco-spiked mayonnaise that is a New Orleans hallmark. Besh, who cooked at the elegant Windsor Court Hotel, across the street, made his name with nouvelle cuisine–influenced dishes based on solid French technique and using many local ingredients. I had, for instance, pumpkin soup drizzled with pumpkin-seed oil and garnished with crab flakes, and pheasant breaded with panko crumbs, sautéed and in a sweetish sauce reminiscent of Chinese food. But since the storm Besh had begun to include the dishes of his bayou youth and the city’s heritage, such as that ravigote sauce and gumbo at Friday lunch, the Sunday supper of New Orleans.

Besh clearly saw a void that needed filling. He had made August an elegant and innovative alternative to Antoine’s and Galatoire’s, but neither of them had yet been able to reopen. Antoine’s, the 800-seat landmark that claims to have invented crabmeat ravigote, lost its maître d’, Clifton Lachney, who drowned with his son; the restaurant also suffered damage to a brick wall that would take months to repair. Galatoire’s, which claims to be the home of shrimp remoulade, went ahead with long-contemplated plans to open a branch in Baton Rouge, promising to reopen its Bourbon Street flagship early in the new year.

This was outright treason in a city that had already suffered unexpected indignities: Emeril Lagasse, New Orleans’s best-known chef, kept a low profile after the storm; the corporate owners of Ruth’s Chris Steak House immediately pulled up stakes and moved their headquarters to Orlando, claiming that Ruth Fertel, the tireless and much-loved founder of the chain, would have pragmatically done the same. “It just isn’t so,” her son, Randy Fertel, said solemnly and angrily at an October conference of the Southern Foodways Alliance, in Oxford, Mississippi. The news from Galatoire’s was particularly galling. “First the storm, then the floods,” Anderson wrote when announcing the Baton Rouge defection. “Now hell is apparently freezing over.”

Loyalty and the tug of home were what made most restaurants reopen, as families—both biological and collegial—reunited. In mid-September, JoAnn Clevenger, proprietor of the Garden District restaurant Upperline and a defender and champion of her city and its food, called her husband back from England, where he works half the year, and her son from St. Louis, where he teaches philosophy, to help with the cooking and to serve customers. Alex Patout, a well-known local chef, cooked on the line to help out. Tacked to the front of the airy, bright, tearoom-like restaurant were three shirt cardboards inscribed with “We’re glad you’re here!” The menu was simplified, but offered the kind of food I most want to eat, each dish speaking of local ingredients and local cuisine: fried green tomatoes with shrimp remoulade; duck and andouille gumbo; Cane River country shrimp with mushroom, bacon, and garlic served over crispy grits.

At the Southern Foodways Alliance conference, Clevenger had described the impossibility of finding people to work because housing was so rare, and recounted how neighborhood spirit helped people get up and running; she cheered on neighbors like Clancy’s, an uptown hangout and the place Anderson went for his last meal before evacuating the city. Clancy’s became one of the first restaurants to reopen, on October 17. Although it is owned by a native Iowan, Brad Hollingsworth, it has become practically a club for the multigeneration Garden District families who rely on its unfussy Creole food.

When I stopped by Clancy’s, it was just past eleven, almost three hours before the city’s curfew, but dinner service had ended, and the cooks and managers were having a nightcap at the bar. The place felt like a jazz club after hours, when the players swap stories and wind down. Everyone smoked. Nash Laurent, the maître d’, put Armand Jonté, the guest chef, in a headlock to wish him good night. Jonté, whose Mississippi gulf house was swept to pilings, was working in the kitchen with Steve Manning, an old friend of his. The group talked fondly of the school-less high school teacher and the wine salesman who had both come in to wash dishes after the reopening. After a few laughs about regulars like the “vodka ladies,” Michael Laurent, who had come back to help his father, brought the conversation around to where every conversation ended up or started. “Okay, who’s living at their own house?” he asked. He and his family were living at his in-laws’. Only three hands went up.

Informal and formal networks are working to bring back the small eating places most at risk—the po’ boy shops and gumbo dives that have always given the city its character. (I saw markedly more white faces in December than on any of my previous visits to the city over two decades.) The Southern Foodways Alliance in November announced a series of “volunteer vacation” weekends to help rebuild Willie Mae’s Scotch House, a modest but legendary restaurant serving what many consider the city’s finest fried chicken, made by the eighty-nine-year-old Willie Mae Seaton. “No experience is necessary!” the alliance promised, throw- ing in the incentive of dinners with Elie, the Times-Picayune columnist, and the writer Pableaux Johnson (whose recent Eating New Orleans, pub- lished last summer, is now as much testament as guide).

The Brennans, the first family of New Orleans restaurateurs, began trying to find jobs and housing for displaced workers immediately after the storm, operating a job Web site out of a family member’s restaurant, Brennan’s of Houston. Dickie Brennan, owner of three French Quarter restaurants, kept 400 workers on his payroll for five weeks after the storm, while two employees worked full-time on the phone to find out where people had landed and whether they would come back, giving out all available information on how to file FEMA and insurance claims.

When I visited Bourbon House, the first of Dickie Brennan’s three businesses to reopen, the ornate two-level restaurant was bright and crowded, like something out of the Diamond Jim Brady era; most of the customers were reconstruction workers and locals who had come back, but I did notice a very few obvious tourists. Bourbon House was the first in the French Quarter to serve fresh Louisiana oysters again, and an owner of a well-established seafood distributor stood behind the shucking bar for four nights to reassure diners about safety. “People weren’t concerned,” Steve Pettus, a managing partner, told me with surprise. “They were like, ‘Gimme oysters.’” Pettus spoke of how good the fish was: “The guy who catches catfish for us called up right away and said, ‘I’m here, I’m still fishing.’” Several chefs told me that the very lack of restaurants competing for the best ingredients helped them find even better fish and seafood than usual. Local produce would be another matter; Brennan had already held a benefit for farmers around Baton Rouge who had long supplied local restaurants. Attracting diners was no problem, he said. “You go outside the restaurant and it’s gloom and doom, it’s hard work, it’s a bad day I’m having. You get inside and people see each other, hug each other. Eating out is therapeutic.”

On my last morning I began, as I had each previous day, with biscuits from Mother’s, a home-style Creole cafe­teria near Canal and Tchoupitoulas, and chicory-laced coffee from Café Du Monde, a ten-minute walk away on Decatur Street, along the waterfront. I noticed a landmark that hadn’t been open before: Central Grocery, an Italian-American emporium with imported pasta, cheeses, and the city’s premier muffulettas—cold-cut-stuffed hero sandwiches on fat baguettes soaked with Central’s famous olive salad. The bread, the salad, and the sandwiches had been back for only three hours, I was told by Larry Tusa, one of the three owners. He and his family had been determined to reopen, he said, in time to celebrate the store’s hundredth anniversary, on February 28.

Tusa used to live in the Lakeview neighborhood, very near the 17th Street Canal break. His house was ruined. A neighbor and friend since grade school had seen his wife drown; Tusa had counseled another friend against suicide. He would never go back to Lakeview, he said. Neither would his father, Charles, in his eighties, who plans to move to a condo on higher ground. “He worked all his life for this and this city,” Tusa said, gesturing at the long, old-fashioned deli counter and the workers behind it—four of the original ten. “If I didn’t have this business, I’d be in Houston with my daughter.” But stay he would. “New Orleans is one of the gateways to the United States, and I don’t think they should forget us. Don’t give anybody false hopes. Commit to whatever it takes to rebuild.”

On my way back to the hotel to pack, I stopped, distracted, at Aunt Sally’s Praline Shop, one of the few souvenir shops to have reopened on the very touristy riverfront strip. The manager was on the phone; she covered the mouthpiece to call out to me, “Sir, is Central Grocery open?” I’d bought a jar of olive salad, and was carrying a bag showing the store’s big green logo. Yes, I said, as of three hours ago. “Central’s open!” she said excitedly into the phone. “You’ll have lunch today.”