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New Life in the Old Line 

The city's most traditional restaurants open their doors to more locals as tourist season dries up.

And now we're on our own. The dust has settled at the Fair Grounds, all those Jazz Fest visitors have gone home, and summer will soon be upon us. If there were ever any doubt that the recovery of New Orleans will be up to people who live here and care about the city, this season will prove it.

Summer is always the low point of New Orleans' tourist season, and this year is shaping up to be especially painful for restaurants that have relied on visitors for a major part of their business. The summer calendar is not a desert -- with several large conventions scheduled to arrive between June and August -- but for day-to-day business, French Quarter restaurants are looking increasingly to locals for support. In particular, the old-line French Creole restaurants are hoping locals will embrace the only-in-New Orleans traditions of which they are a part this summer.

Brennan's Restaurant expects to reopen in late May once repairs are finished to its 210-year-old Royal Street building. Its return will mean that all of the city's old-line French Creole restaurants are back in business. Bastions of tradition, some of these restaurants have nevertheless made significant changes since the storm in a bid to entice more locals, while others believe not changing at all is their best draw.

"We would love to see locals re-explore the French Quarter, to use this time to claim it as theirs," says Marc Preuss, who manages Broussard's, his parents' Conti Street restaurant. "This is the time to go to restaurants, get recognized as a local, get your own waiter, find your favorite table."

Preuss and his parents, Gunter and Evelyn, gave their 86-year-old restaurant an overhaul during the five months it was closed after Katrina, brightening its dining rooms and replanting its large, lush courtyard. They also hired a new chef, Louis Gomez, who has revamped the menu and added a three-course table d'hote special for $28.50.

Managers of these restaurants say locals have been sustaining their businesses since reopening post Katrina.

"Before, we were 65 percent local, 35 percent tourists," says Galatoire's general manager, Melvin Rodrigue. "Now we're 90 percent locals, and I think that's from people coming back more frequently."

Indeed, the clientele on recent visits did not look like they needed to have crabmeat ravigote explained to them as they joked with waiters in the familiar style of old friends. When Galatoire's reopened its doors in January, three-quarters of its dining room staff was back. Now virtually all of them are back, Rodrigue says.

"That's been a big help for us since we reopened," he says.

Locals also have been stepping in to book the private dining rooms that make up a big part of these restaurants' business. Arnaud's Restaurant has 12 of them, and manager Katy Casbarian says the restaurant has picked up more local business from parties whose original venues remain shuttered from storm damage.

Casbarian says her family wanted to reopen the restaurant with its full menu as soon as possible to give locals some semblance of normalcy, if only for the duration of their meal. But its hardly business as usual at the restaurant.

"We're having the same challenges as everyone else," Casbarian says. "There's not enough staffing, not enough housing for them. Managers are doing things pretty far out of their job descriptions, and so are the owners. Last night, I was washing dishes."

But that's behind the scenes. In the dining rooms and courtyards, the restaurants are preserving a style of dining unique to New Orleans. Visitors entering the courtyard at Court of Two Sisters can sometimes be heard to sigh in appreciation at the vision of New Orleans the postcards had promised them. Pictures are often taken before drink orders.

The restaurant briefly added an a la carte lunch special as a hook for locals, but soon reverted to serving only the daily jazz brunch for which it is known. The restaurant is reworking its traditional Creole dinner menu, however, with its former sous chef Mario Abdu in charge of the kitchen. New entrees like parmesan-crusted drum with citrus buerre blanc or the pork chop with Abita Amber-smothered greens and a tasso mustard demiglace would be at home on the menu of a contemporary bistro.

Similarly, Tujague's is still serving its famous set-piece -- the six-course table d'hote dinner -- but since reopening, it has also added an a la carte menu.

The biggest changes among the French Creole restaurants happened at the oldest of the old guard: Antoine's Restaurant, which has nixed lunch service but added a jazz brunch. The restaurant planned to host Sunday jazz brunches on just three consecutive weekends leading up to Mardi Gras, but the meal proved popular and is now a permanent part of the restaurant's schedule.

Local families have embraced the new brunch, says marketing director Colette Guste, and many of them bring kids. So the restaurant added a children's menu, which -- like its regular menus -- is written in French. Children can order pain perdu (Antoine's version of French toast) for $6.75 or poulet frits (better known as fried chicken fingers) for $7.25 while their parents knock back brandy eye-openers.

Adding brunch was a big deal for a restaurant best known for resisting any change at all, but history helps put it in perspective, says Guste, whose great-great-grandfather Antoine Alciatore was the founder and namesake of the restaurant.

"My family started Antoine's in 1840. That's 20 years before the war between the states," she says. "They had to deal with a lot more hardship than us. They went through Word War I, the yellow fever epidemic, World War II. This is just a chapter of history."

click to enlarge The biggest changes among the French Creole restaurants - happened at the oldest of the old guard: AntoineÕs - Restaurant, which has nixed lunch service but added a jazz - brunch. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • The biggest changes among the French Creole restaurants happened at the oldest of the old guard: AntoineÕs Restaurant, which has nixed lunch service but added a jazz brunch.
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