I heard plenty about places like LeRuth's, Chez Helene, Kolb's and Buster Holmes when I first began exploring New Orleans restaurants. Never mind that they all had closed years before I moved here in 1999.
People shared stories about their meals and experiences at these and other long-gone restaurants so often, they still seemed to be in play. It was a valuable early lesson as I tried to familiarize myself with this city's unique and exceptionally self-aware culinary culture. People here have personal New Orleans food histories, and the context of the past remains meaningful for whatever comes next.
Even as a newcomer, I felt I was building my own personal food history here, and I assumed that one day I too would look back through its chapters. I did not imagine that day would come so soon, but then I also did not imagine Hurricane Katrina, an experience through which New Orleans witnessed a generation's worth of change overnight.
The local restaurant industry came back with valiant speed and resolve, and the late returns of Katie's and Sid-Mar's this year prove it's hard to count a restaurant out for good. But at this fifth anniversary of Katrina, it seems clear many places have slipped into the annals of lost New Orleans restaurants. Some were among the city's most quirky and charismatic, meaning they were also among the least likely to be duplicated in any convincing fashion.
It takes just a whiff of garlic sliced over darkly fried oysters to recall Restaurant Mandich, a pink-painted time capsule of Creole cooking, a place once described in the Zagat Survey as "the Galatoire's of the Ninth Ward." Could there ever be another Barrow's Shady Inn, that wood-paneled Hollygrove den where Al Green crooned forever from the jukebox and the only dish served was wild-caught catfish? Bruning's, a lakefront legend dating to 1859, is now a memory too. The same goes for La Cuisine, a holdover of 1960s-era Lakeview, and Christian's, where smoked soft-shell crabs and oyster-stuffed steaks were served beneath stained glass windows inside a retired church.
Other casualties were not so epic but made unforgettable contributions to the restaurant scene, from the edgy, global cuisine at Marisol and the romance with a view at Bella Luna to the huge "moon" sandwiches at Charlie's Delicatessen and the burgers at Michael's Mid-City Grill. There were the decadent Friday lunches at Gabrielle, the steaks at Chateaubriand, the promising New Southern cooking at Cobalt and Lulu's and the island flavors at Mango House. There was Barrister's in Chalmette, Rene Bistrot, Indigo on Bayou Road, Landry's and Plantation Coffeehouse in Lakeview and Nick's on Carrollton. There are many others, and the ones you miss the most probably speak to your personal history with them.
People around south Louisiana know better than most how the feeling of a special place can endure even after it's been wiped from the map, like family homes plowed under or churches and schools erased from the landscape. The intimacy of the past always informs the present in New Orleans, and through the Katrina experience our notion of the past was abruptly reset.
I think that helps explain our tighter embrace of local food traditions during these past five years. We all had to struggle to make our city possible again, and our restaurants were part of the fight and the reward. That's why now, no matter who happens to be at the table, eating at our distinctive New Orleans restaurants feels like dining with family.