When Fine Meals Defy Financial Markets

New Orleans, LA –
Discouraging financial news seemed inescapable last year as America's economy continued to limp along. But narrow the focus to the realm of New Orleans restaurants and you might have thought 2009 was a boom year.

Some economists say New Orleans stands somewhat apart from national trends thanks to Katrina recovery money still working through the local system. But that doesn't seem enough to explain the number and diversity of new restaurants to spring up here in the past year. Ambitious new chefs and restaurateurs seemed eager to join the fray and local rising stars asserted their prominence with new ventures. Despite the condition of financial markets, 2009 saw the debut of one new restaurant after another in New Orleans while a few landmark restaurants made significant changes to their operations.

At the high end, Coquette Bistro and Wine Bar took over an Uptown townhouse that has seen a quick succession of previous restaurants. Le Meritage replaced Dominique's at the Maison Dupuy Hotel in the French Quarter and Le Foret opened following extensive renovations to a historic Central Business District building.

Meanwhile, a clutch of established local chefs chose 2009 as the year to expand their reach with more casual undertakings. The Besh Restaurant Group grew from four to six properties as chef John Besh opened the retro-themed American Sector inside the National World War II Museum and the regional Italian eatery Domenica inside the revived Roosevelt Hotel. A similar Italian concept marks the third restaurant from chef Adolfo Garcia, co-owner of RioMar and La Boca. For his latest venture, he partnered with chef Joshua Smith for a Mano, where the menu revolves around hand-made pastas and cured meats.

And speaking of meats, chef Donald Link opened the upscale meat market Butcher last year, along with partner chefs Stephen Stryjewski and Warren Stephens. Like John Besh, Donald Link also published his first cookbook in 2009.

When restaurants did fold last year, new developments were often not far behind. For instance, in Metairie the Korean restaurant Gimchee closed, but owners of Sid-Mar's, the Bucktown seafood joint wrecked by Hurricane Katrina, announced plans to reopen at Gimchee's former address early this year. The well-known breakfast spot Bluebird Cafe closed after more than 20 years in business, but it was soon replaced by a new diner-style eatery called Coulis. And the sandwich shop J'Anita's closed its doors in the Lower Garden District but quickly reinvented itself as the tavern kitchen for the nearby Avenue Pub.

But the long reach of the national economy did seem to spur some unexpected changes in at least one corner of the local restaurant scene. Several landmark restaurants in the French Quarter, places that are traditionally magnets for well-heeled tourists and conventioneers, retooled a bit to make themselves more accessible to casual diners.

K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen began a deli-style lunch service three days a week, offering salads, sandwiches and Cajun pot cooking. And even Antoine's, the city's oldest restaurant, transformed one of its many dining rooms into the Hermes Bar, the first bar in the restaurant's 169-year history. Now patrons can stroll in off St. Louis Street, get a drink and even order from a bar menu of snacks and sandwiches that can only be described as French Creole casual. It seems that even when the national economy gets tough, New Orleans still finds new ways to eat well.