When I first moved to New Orleans, back in 1999, I was amazed by how often people talked about restaurants that no longer existed. But I had it all wrong, of course. In New Orleans, just because a restaurant is no longer open for business does not necessarily mean it no longer exists.
I came to understand how they lived on in the collective awareness of the city’s food culture, and in the personal histories that people build around food here. To this point of view, restaurants of the past remain meaningful for whatever comes next.
Eventually though, what came next was Hurricane Katrina, and the kind of change that is normally spread across generations was an overnight reality for New Orleans. In the realm of restaurants alone, places we had just visited, newcomers making promising debuts and old joints you knew would never change suddenly all became part of the past.
The upcoming Katrina anniversary might not carry the emotional punch it once did, now that we’re a dozen years out. But the experience is still woven into everyday life in New Orleans, and that includes our restaurants. The reminders are there, and the calendar, the weather, and maybe even the occasional flash flood can sharpen their clarity. Restaurants in particular prove fertile repositories for this, perhaps because you can still walk inside and visit many of them in their current configurations.
So it goes at the old home of Restaurant Mandich. Dating back to the 1920s, it was an unselfconsciously retro, pink-painted clubhouse for Creole cooking on St. Claude Avenue. The host here always seemed to steer us to the bar first, no matter how sparse the dining room looked, just to make sure we got a cocktail before we got to the table. Today, under the same roof and in roughly the same spot as that old bar, you can get a frozen ginger mint julep or a gallon-sized pina colada at Queenie’s on St. Claude, a daiquiri shop with colorful pies and quick comfort food.
The counter at the old Charlie’s Delicatessen in Lakeview, once home of the muffuletta-sized Moon sandwich, now dispenses Koz’s po-boys, and the courtyard at Marisol is now part of the Frenchmen Street music strip as Rare Form.
Chateaubriand: now the sushi bar Ikura; the Mango House: now part of Boucherie; Weaver’s Po-Boys: now Café Navarre; Plantation Coffeehouse: now a PJ’s; Michael’s Mid-City Grill: now Café Minh; Christian’s: now Vessel, under the same stained glass windows in the same old chapel. Squint your eyes and the outlines of these old places still stir the pot of food memories.
Then again more recent history proves you can never count a pre-Katrina restaurant out permanently. In the past year alone, Café Sbisa was reincarnated after an extended residency in limbo, and Dunbar’s Creole Cuisine came back, in a new home on Earhart Boulevard. Next up is Gabrielle, a pre-Katrina name from Esplanade Avenue now slated to return on Orleans Avenue.
Katrina changed a lot in New Orleans, but it didn’t stop the way we keep talking about food and restaurants and remembered meals. So, don’t let anyone tell you your old favorite restaurant no longer exists, because sometimes the past catches up with the conversation.