As a restaurant boom unfolds in New Orleans, some ponder how much it's guided by business or by passion.
We call this segment “where y’eat,” and these days, when I ask people where they have been eating in New Orleans, the answer is very often someplace new.
We are witnessing a restaurant boom, and you can read the signs everywhere. Established restaurant owners are adding more properties, young chefs are jumping into the business for themselves, developers are building new restaurant spaces right into their projects while other restaurants are clustering in areas that used to be restaurant deserts. Look at Freret Street, where a dozen eateries have opened along a half-mile stretch in three years, or the Bywater, where in 2012 alone six new restaurants opened within a few blocks of each other.
Then there are the bootstrap entrepreneurs driving a food truck and pop-up restaurant scene, sometimes growing these ventures into brick-and-mortar restaurants. It’s adding up to a great surge in dining options and a veritable eater’s market.
But, this boom also presents something of a mystery. Why are so many restaurants opening here, now? And how does an area with a significantly reduced post-Katrina population support them? What’s more, growth like we’re seeing here is at odds with restaurant trends nationally. If you’ve flipped through a restaurant industry publication in the past year, you’ve seen gloomy predictions, reports of rising food costs and complaints from restaurant executives and analysts that, in this economy, people aren’t dining out as often, especially younger people.
But tighten the lens to the New Orleans restaurant scene, and you’re more likely to hear optimism. In fact, some new restaurateurs are finding their dining rooms packed and their waiting lists or reservation books full, sometimes to their own astonishment.
Of course, local restaurant industry insiders have their own theories as to why things are blowing up now. One theme: this boom could represent a changing of the guard, as young chefs assert themselves and seek to make their mark. And there’s the pervasive glamorization of the restaurant world in media and pop culture, as the old how-to TV cooking programs have given way to glitzy chef competitions and kitchen-based reality shows. Being a chef or running a restaurant has a lot more cachet now. And remember, since Katrina, we have seen an influx of people who grew up elsewhere. If they’re looking for different sorts of dining experiences, the industry is certainly cooking up more options for them now.
But the restaurant business is a business, and there is the persistent question of how far supply can grow versus demand. Despite all of our post-Katrina progress, the New Orleans population is just three-quarters of what it was in 2005 and the whole metro area population is down by 10 percent.
But maybe it goes deeper than math. Great food is part of New Orleans heritage and culture. And here may lay one of the reasons why so many restaurants are opening and why more seem to make it here. It’s in our blood. Food is more than a business, it’s a passion, one that compels diners and restaurateurs alike even when dining out or keeping that restaurant running doesn’t make cold, hard sense. We can barely help ourselves, and today, there’s more helpings of all of it.