New Orleans food has long been defined by its own particular traditions and even its own language, one that's as intuitive to local diners as ordering a po-boy "dressed" or knowing that any French Creole restaurant will serve trout meuniere without so much as consulting a menu. Lately, though, there's been a lot of new vocabulary in play here, and much of it centers on the same trends and topics that have foodies around the nation talking.
Changes in the city's dining scene have caught the attention of people outside New Orleans, too. When national food writers come calling these days, they're as likely to scout for banh mi (the sandwiches known locally as Vietnamese po-boys) as to chronicle their search for the best gumbo. Of 11 restaurants singled out by New York Times food critic Sam Sifton in his April assessment of the modern New Orleans dining scene, three were Vietnamese.
What's more, local restaurants getting boldface mention now are sometimes portrayed as refreshing alternatives to the city's old and expected dining traditions. In December, for instance, food writer Josh Ozersky opined in a Time magazine piece "that New Orleans is rising to a higher plane, gastronomically speaking, than ever before." One restaurant he cited as proof was the French Quarter's new Sylvain, where chef Alex Herrell and owners Sean McCusker and Robert LeBlanc studiously avoid New Orleans menu standards.
LeBlanc also is a partner in a clutch of new dining hotspots to emerge downtown recently, including Capdeville, which opened last year, and Ste. Marie, which opened last month. In addition to media mentions, these new restaurants have attracted an enthusiastic following, particularly among young professionals who work and, increasingly, live nearby in the CBD and Warehouse District.
While each is distinct, these restaurants all feature stylish, modern design aesthetics (mellow lighting, smooth surfaces, calming color palettes) and menus of gourmet, multicultural comfort food (pappardelle Bolognese at Sylvain, truffled mac and cheese at Capdeville, steamed mussels at Ste. Marie, upscale burgers at all three). LeBlanc says such decisions were part of strategies he and his partners in each venture developed to help their new restaurants stand out in the landscape of New Orleans' well-established favorites.
"We don't want the food to be so out of left field that it's inaccessible to people, but we still know we have to do things in a distinctive way in a city that has 200 years of history," he says. "I don't know that we could ever create another Galatoire's, so for us to be significant, we have to be different and innovative."
LeBlanc also sees his restaurants serving customers that he describes as being part of "New Orleans' first generation with that Anthony Bourdain dynamic," referring to the chef, author and star of the Travel Channel's globetrotting foodie show No Reservations.
"A lot of people credit Emeril (Lagasse) for popularizing cooking again. I think Anthony Bourdain is responsible for people being more adventurous eaters," LeBlanc says.
LeBlanc and his partners are hardly the only ones now courtingdiners' interest in flavors and concepts from outside the New Orleans norm.
Food trucks and pop-ups, cupcakes and small plates, gastropubs and sliders, bacon everywhere, farm-to-table bona fides and craft cocktails — these hot national dining trends have been getting a lot of buzz in New Orleans, and they're part of the program at many of the new restaurants to open here in the past few years.
While earlier trends have cycled through the city in turn, some observers say today's crop is showing greater sticking power than before. They credit an influx of new residents after Hurricane Katrina or the exposure locals had to other cities' dining scenes during their own prolonged Katrina evacuations. Others point to the drumbeat of national media food coverage and the hyper-connectivity of the wired generation with its constant online posting about the next new thing.
"We do seem more open to the next trends here now than we used to," says David Beriss, an anthropologist at the University of New Orleans who studies local food culture. "They seem to have legs here now whereas before they might turn up but die quickly."
There's no doubt that two New Orleans examples of the pop-up trend (or restaurants using an à la mode model of opening for limited stints inside other businesses) have quickly captured the interest of local diners.
One is Pizza Delicious, where New York transplants Greg Augarten and Michael Friedman serve takeout pizza on Sunday evenings from a Bywater commissary kitchen. Customers call in orders using a phone number posted on the Pizza Delicious blog, and since first starting up last year, demand has grown to the point where the wait for a pie can be up to five hours on some Sundays. Such avid response from local eaters spurred Augarten and Friedman to expand with Thursday evening service, which begins Feb. 17.
Meanwhile, at MVB (or Most Valuable Burger), another pop-up serving gourmet burgers and fries on Sundays inside Slim Goodies Diner, customers begin queuing up before the doors open for the night, forming a line that sometimes stretches down the block.
Rene Louapre, a local attorney and food blogger who started MVB with a group of chefs and restaurateurs in October, says he never expected the idea to catch on so quickly, but he credits locals' growing awareness of, and interest in, what's happening in the food scenes in other cities.
"People open up Bon Appétit and see this chef opening a burger joint, that chef doing a pop-up, and they think 'Why don't we have that here?,'" Louapre says. "There's so much information about food out there now, and it's so accessible to people who sit at a computer all day. These are people who travel to check out the food somewhere and they research it, they identify with food and they want to see new things at home.
"Enough people realize that we have to step up our game. Not to the detriment of places that put lemon fish on a plate with some crabmeat and charge $31, but not everyone can do that now. People have to be more inventive. We don't want places like Atlanta to pass us up."
It wasn't long ago that discussions about dinner in New Orleans tended to focus not on what to eat but where in the city to get it.
"People used to say that our restaurants served exactly the same menu," says Liz Williams, director of the Southern Food & Beverage Museum. "The only comparison was, well, this one prepares this dish better than that one."
But even when the variety of restaurant options was limited, dining out was part of New Orleans culture and locals did it quite often, Williams says. As different types of restaurants opened during recent decades, their owners benefited from the local penchant for dining out frequently and found that people here would try new things and support them.
New Orleans' interest in dining trends from around the country isn't so surprising, says John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi. He says changes in the city's dining scene are generally in line with the experience around much of the South today.
"The best of the new guard restaurants are leveraging the old traditions and tipping their hats to them. The best cooking anywhere does that; it respects tradition but riffs on it," Edge says. "I don't see culture as static. It evolves, and thank God for that. We look to the past, but to the moment too."
Not everyone is cheering the recent round of trends to materialize around New Orleans. Tom Fitzmorris, the food writer and radio talk show host who has been covering the New Orleans restaurant scene since the 1970s, regularly rails against the eagerness of some local chefs to adopt trends conceived in other cities.
"I'm angry about it because these guys are presenting themselves as so original and as creative thinkers, but they're doing what everyone else is doing at the same time," Fitzmorris says. "I am so done with pork belly and short ribs, and everyone is doing that."
He cautions that as more chefs follow the vogue, the next generation of New Orleanians may lose an appreciation for their own culinary heritage. Indeed, despite the city's reputation for cultural intransience, some touchstones for the New Orleans palate of past generations are nearly forgotten today. Spanish mackerel, squab, the Creole beef dish daube, fried rice cakes called calas and Creole cream cheese were once commonplace in New Orleans kitchens or menus, though when they turn up at all today it's usually as niche specialties or nostalgic throwback items. Fitzmorris worries that more New Orleans food traditions may be on the cultural chopping block as younger diners fixate on other flavors.
"I'm very concerned about red beans and rice. My two kids, they never eat it," Fitzmorris says. "When my son comes home from college, he wants us to go out for sushi, Vietnamese, Thai. If you're eating a bowl of pho, you're not eating a seafood platter, and that has an effect on traditional dishes."
Still, for all the buzz about trends from outside the traditional New Orleans template, there also is plenty of fresh evidence of locals' ongoing affection for homegrown flavors and the well of local talent ready to provide it.
For instance, when 7th Ward native Troy Rhodies decided to get into the restaurant business after some 20 years working as an air-conditioning tech, there was no question what sort of food he'd serve.
"We knew we'd basically do what we knew growing up," he says. "It's not tacos, it's not wraps. We thought, 'Let's do a new place but do it the old way.'"
In 2009 Rhodies and his wife Myra opened Freret Street Po-Boy & Donut Shop, a corner joint Uptown where the Monday special is always red beans and rice, and the roast beef po-boy calls for a pile of napkins to sop up the gravy. While he says the learning curve for running a restaurant has been steep, the cooking came naturally.
"I watch chefs on TV and see those shows. I'm not a chef like that. I just cook and know how to make food taste good," Rhodies says. "I would never cook a roast beef without stuffing it with garlic and making sure it was seasoned correctly and cooking it down 12 or 14 hours and making a gravy with that roast itself. That's the taste of home for me."
A few miles away on Magazine Street, the popular appeal of traditional local flavors is obvious outside of Mahony's Po-Boy Shop, where the line that typically forms on Saturday afternoons often rivals the one outside of MVB on Sundays. Mahony's owner Ben Wicks logged eight years in high-end New Orleans restaurant kitchens before opening his shop in 2008. But despite that fine-dining experience, he says he wanted to open a business that would help assert the goodness of casual New Orleans food, which he saw threatened by shortcuts like packaged meats used at some other po-boy purveyors. He says the public response has been vindicating.
"You have to give New Orleans people what they want, but you do that with a hands-on approach and apply an understanding of cooking, and you can stand out," Wicks says.
Frank Brigtsen, the James Beard Award-winning chef at the upscale Brigtsen's Restaurant, has enjoyed a similar experience at Charlie's Seafood, the 1950s-vintage River Ridge neighborhood restaurant he bought and reopened in 2009.
"It's particularly gratifying for me to see 8- and 9-year-old kids come in here and eat gumbo and boiled crabs, just like I did when I was a kid," Brigtsen says. "This food is part of our heritage. It defines who we are as New Orleanians, and we're glad to help provide that experience to another generation."
Chef Scott Boswell is best known for globally-influenced cuisine, cutting-edge culinary technology and high-end ingredients at his restaurant Stella!. But the Lake Charles native says his Jackson Square diner Stanley, where the menu features gumbo and boudin beside Korean barbecue beef po-boys, has sparked his interest in "revisiting the roots" of local cuisine.
"Tastes are evolving, diners are evolving," he says. "They're demanding high quality and the people meeting those demands are doing well. But at the same time I've been feeling that I need to backpedal. I want to keep the culinary technique I've developed but go back to what it's all about."
Boswell says he hopes to open a new restaurant some time in the future to be a showcase for traditional New Orleans and Louisiana cuisine.
"The stuff I grew up with has fallen into tourist traps," he says. "It doesn't have to be mediocre food, but that genre has fallen into a rut. We're all down with why we live here in New Orleans and Louisiana. It's such a special place. There's so much history, and there's such food history, too. Maybe we can dig back into the archives."
Other local chefs interviewed for this story agreed the city's Creole cuisine has always been about blending different cultural influences. Some suggest that today's hot dining trends could provide the fodder for tomorrow's new twists on what New Orleans food can be.
"People come here looking for the Louisiana experience, but I think they also like having it reinterpreted, too," says Susan Spicer, chef and owner of Bayona and Mondo. "I think people are more savvy today, they travel more, they're exposed to more influences. They're looking for different perspectives."
Leah Chase, the chef and owner of Dooky Chase Restaurant and renowned authority on Creole cuisine, says she's excited by the range of new restaurants opening around town.
"People will come to New Orleans to try different things, and we should show different things here, different tastes and styles," she says. "Every step you take in your life, you learn."
She says a greater acceptance of different foods and flavors among New Orleans diners and visitors today has helped expand the range of her own kitchen.
"Now I can do different things, because people today are more adventurous. They'll try it," Chase says. "I like to cook game. I'm from the country, so this isn't new for me. This is what I knew growing up. But where before people would turn their noses up at it, today you can put that on your menu and there's interest in it. I like to make quail and grits, for instance."
At the end of the day, though, Chase counsels that sometimes there really is nothing as satisfying as the food you already know by heart.
"When you're dining out, you go for different experiences," she says. "But if you're hungry, you better eat what you know. If you're from New Orleans and you get really hungry, you better have New Orleans food."