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Meat Market 

While some famous names remain closed, other steakhouses sizzle

Mr. John's Ristorante is in business without the benefit of the 600 guest rooms above it in the still-shuttered Avenue Plaza Hotel. The streetcar that used to breeze past its St. Charles Avenue location packed with tourists is still out of action. And while dinner is served Tuesday through Saturday, lunch is down from five days a week before the storm to just Thursday and Friday now thanks to staffing constraints.

"But even with all that, last month our numbers were only $100 off from the same month last year," says manager Neil Keeler.

The reason? Think steak.

The restaurant used to be called Mr. John's Steakhouse. Before reopening in April, restaurant owner John Santopadre and his chef -- Christian Rossit, a native of Venice, Italy -- wrote a new Italian menu with highlights like beef carpaccio, gnocchi, veal saltimbocca and polenta and rebranded the steakhouse as a "ristorante." But Mr. John's kept its prime steaks and Keeler says they still account for 70 percent of sales.

"I really think one reason we get so many people in here is because there aren't as many steakhouses open now," he says.

Steakhouses were slow to reopen after the storm and some of the city's heaviest hitters remain out of action. Crescent City Steakhouse and Ruth's Chris Steakhouse remain closed and while both intend to reopen neither can say just when.

Smith & Wollensky in the Central Business District is gone for good, as is Chateaubriand, the French-accented steakhouse in Mid-City. The future is uncertain for the still-shuttered Charlie's Steakhouse, the down-at-the-heels but much-loved Uptown stalwart.

The Steak Knife, put out of business in Lakeview by flooding, closed its downtown location in the Whitney Hotel in May citing staffing shortages. The Roth family intends to open a new Steak Knife later this summer in Lakeview at the Pontchartrain Boulevard location previously occupied by VooDoo BBQ.

But more steakhouses have reopened than remain closed. The Chicago-based chain Morton's reopened the first steakhouse in the city proper with the return of its Canal Place location in January. The Beef Connection in Gretna and the Metairie location of Ruth's Chris Steakhouse opened late in 2005. Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse, completely rebuilt from massive flooding of its underground dining room, reopened in May. On the Northshore, Boule Prime House in Covington, Young's Steakhouse in Slidell and -- from the same family -- Keith Young's Steakhouse in Madisonville are open as well.

And there are two new steakhouses on the scene post-storm. Nick Bazan and chef Adolfo Garcia opened an Argentine-style steakhouse called La Boca in June around the corner from their other Warehouse District restaurant, RioMar. And in March, NFL legend Don Shula, retired coach of the Miami Dolphins, opened the latest edition of his 28-restaurant steakhouse chain Shula's in the J.W. Marriott Hotel on Canal Street.

The Vojkovich family, which first opened Crescent City Steakhouse in 1934, is eager to reopen their Mid-City landmark but progress in repairing the badly flooded building has proved frustratingly slow. The family lost several homes in Lakeview to flooding as well.

"In January, reopening in May seemed plausible, then May rolls around and you think maybe September," says Zvenka Vojkovich, whose father, John, started the steakhouse. "So when will we reopen? God only knows. But will we? Absolutely."

When the restaurant does reopen, Vojkovich says it will look just the same as before the storm, right down to the tile work and distinctive curtained booths. Behind the scenes, the kitchen and the building's systems will be updated and the second floor, where the Vojkovich family once lived, will be converted into another dining room for private parties.

Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, whose original location is three blocks down Broad Street from Crescent City, is also committed to reopening, but company CEO Craig Miller says "it's a matter of where and when."

At least part of the "where" question is known: the original Broad Street location will not be rebuilt, and the company is looking for real estate in the CBD or Warehouse District.

"We want to have a flagship restaurant in a flagship location in New Orleans," Miller says. "We're talking about a $3 million investment, and I don't think many people would argue that the Broad Street location is a flagship location, even if they love it and have a lot of affection for it."

Ruth's Chris started in New Orleans when Ruth Fertel bought the Chris Steakhouse in Mid-City in 1965. It was expanding rapidly through franchise growth when, in 1999, the Chicago-based investment firm Madison Dearborn Partners bought the company. In August, the firm spun it off as a public company. Three weeks after that initial public offering of its stock, Hurricane Katrina struck. Within days, Miller relocated the company's headquarters and its 60 employees from its stricken Metairie offices to its now-permanent home in Orlando, Fla. The company was days away from opening a new steakhouse inside a Biloxi casino when Katrina destroyed that facility too. Ruth's Chris plans to open in Biloxi next summer and is on track to open 15 new restaurants a year worldwide, Miller says.

"New Orleans is a very important market to us because this is where we started, but from a financial standpoint we don't need to open a restaurant in New Orleans before its time," he says.

In the meantime, New Orleanians have many steakhouses to choose from. Mr. John's, for one, has been busy. On a recent Saturday night, most of the customers in its packed dining room were cutting into strip steaks and filet mignons sizzling with butter.

click to enlarge Chef Christian Rossit presides over the transformed - steakhouse Mr. John's Ristorante on St. Charles Avenue. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Chef Christian Rossit presides over the transformed steakhouse Mr. John's Ristorante on St. Charles Avenue.
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