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Thu August 20, 2009
The Four-Year-Long Homecoming
By Ian McNulty
New Orleans, LA – For the past four years, New Orleans has been a living case study for just how much local restaurants can mean to a community. That's because, thanks to Katrina, the city's entire restaurant industry came to a screeching, violent halt in late August 2005. And for a long time, there was the open question of which restaurants would come back, how they would do it and what they would be like afterward.
The incredible story here is that so many of them did return. The odds they overcame were incredible. Some were annihilated by floodwaters. Some were ripped open by storm winds. Some were savaged by looters in the storm's aftermath. And some were not badly damaged, but their owners had to contend with the gut-wrenching proposition of operating a business again in a city in ruins, where it was anyone's guess what level of the population would ever return and where official guidance, or even encouragement, was slim to nil.
Restaurateurs were not the only ones wondering what could become of things. When the immediate crisis in the city had ebbed, the speculation and anxiety over the fate of favorite local restaurants rose as a constant topic of conversation. Rather than blithe concerns in the face of such grave devastation, these conversations reflected just how deeply important New Orleans food -- and its restaurants -- are to the identity of the city and its citizens.
What's more, New Orleans people who were able to return home early enough in the city's recovery could do more than just talk about their restaurant heritage. They could endorse it and nurture it with their presence. It's hard to imagine another set of circumstances that would give a city the opportunity to see all of its landmark dining institutions reopening, one by one, and for people who care about these places to be in that number when they did.
Especially in the early days of recovery, each time one more restaurant reopened, the scene in its dining room was like a social roll call for the regulars who were back in the city too. In some cases, like the reopening of Galatoire's and Antoine's, of Mandina's and Pascal's Manale, New Orleans people were able to be part of something as extraordinary as the first day back in business for restaurants that trace their histories for generations in this city. Where else but in post-Katrina New Orleans could people help celebrate the grand opening of a 100-year-old restaurant?
It went on for years, and still goes on today as a few restaurants that have been closed since Katrina continue to come back to life. For instance, Katie's Restaurant on Iberville Street is finally staging its own return after being deeply flooded back in 2005.
The local restaurateurs who made early reinvestments in New Orleans had to gamble that their work would somehow be rewarded by people who faced their own tremendous struggles in a then-crippled city. The response of their customers, of the city at large, has shown that banking on locals' love of their food is a sound wager.
For a firsthand account of the first night back in business for one New Orleans restaurant reopening after Hurricane Katrina,