New Orleans, La. –
Is it possible that the fastest way to neighborhood revitalization in New Orleans is through the stomach? That seems to be the story these days along the Freret Street commercial corridor, a historic but long-neglected and under-loved shopping district that has blossomed into the city's newest restaurant row.
Freret was once a thriving place for locals to shop for everything from clothing to Kosher meats, though for decades it had been on the slide, losing retailers to the suburbs as the neighborhood deteriorated around it. It was flooded by the levee failures after Hurricane Katrina, and for years the recovery seemed to languish. But locals were working behind the scenes, laying the groundwork for what now seems like a groundswell of new businesses - especially exciting new places to eat and drink.
In less than three years, 12 new, independent, locally-owned restaurants and bars have opened here or have announced plans to open soon. There's Cure, an upscale cocktail lounge that set the pace here back in 2009. There's the homespun Sarita's Grill, the hybrid juice bar/sno-ball stand Beaucoup Juice, the cafe and sandwich shop Village Coffee & Tea and the traditional Creole soul joint Freret Street Po-Boys and Donuts. The hot dog emporium Dat Dog opened this past winter and is already planning to expand. And in June, the Neapolitan pizza specialist Ancora and the Deep South comfort food purveyor High Hat Cafe opened on the same day. The specialty burger joint the Company Burger and the Chicago-style deep dish pizza place the Midway are the latest, and also on the way are a Japanese restaurant called Origami and a new bar and music venue called PubliQ House.
Restaurants and bars aren't the only businesses sprouting along Freret. But with their density, diversity and the buzz they generate, it is the new eating and drinking establishments that have put Freret in the spotlight. That's because these places have the power to draw people to the street and get them to take a long look around at all the other progress here.
Why restaurants and bars? Well, Freret boosters point to a confluence of reasons. They credit a core of determined local developers and neighborhood leaders who stepped up. Cheaper real estate made a difference, allowing restaurateurs to redevelop neglected properties the way they envisioned rather than cut corners to meet tighter budgets. They also tip their hats to their local city councilwoman, Stacey Head. She helped create new zoning for Freret that makes it easier to get permits for restaurants and bars while at the same time setting certain rules about their hours of operation and the types of entertainment allowed. In a city where the prospect of a new restaurant and bar opening can spark acrimony among neighbors, Freret's new entrepreneurs say this zoning was an open invitation to come set up shop.
There's a cooperative spirit here even among the new restaurateurs themselves, something that feels like camaraderie. They're all busy nurturing their own new ventures, of course, but they also make time to drop in and see how their business neighbors are doing and to lend a hand where they can.
This Saturday, Sept. 3, marks the return of the Freret Market, a monthly arts, crafts and food market that's back after its summer hiatus. It's a great opportunity to head down and see all that's cooking now on new Freret.
For a list of new Freret restaurants and other businesses on the street, go to thenewFreret.com.