"We wanted the city to come back a little, to let our staff stabilize, and to be able to put out our full menu," says Brigtsen, whose blend of Creole and Acadian cooking draws heavily on Louisiana ingredients. "This is a people business where you rely on your suppliers, so many farmers and fishermen, as well as your customers being there. It's a chain and its dynamic, and we needed that chain to be together for us to get back."
As 2006 begins, enough links in that chain appear back in place that January is shaping up as a bellwether month for the city's restaurant industry. At the same time, some of the problems that have proved most frustrating on the road to return for restaurants remain stubbornly in place, especially concerning staffing and housing for employees who return.
With repairs and renovations finished, city services regaining a level of reliability and some neighborhoods repopulating, December and early January were set as the reopening nights for some of the city's most popular and anticipated restaurants. After opening its Baton Rouge spin-off Galatoire's Bistro in November, the landmark Galatoire's Restaurant was set to reopen for its 101st year on Bourbon Street on Jan. 1. Jacques-Imo's Caf planned to reopen in time for New Year's Eve. The Bon Ton Caf, which first introduced Cajun cuisine to the New Orleans fine-dining scene in the 1950s, reopened downtown on Dec. 20. Emeril Lagasse's flagship Emeril's Restaurant reopened on Dec. 8 with great fanfare and was followed a week later by its French Quarter sibling NOLA.
Despite severe storm damage to its complex of buildings, Antoine's Restaurant planned to reopen right around Christmas from the longest hiatus in its 165-year history. Arnaud's Restaurant reopened Dec. 1, making it the first of the Creole grande dames to return. And the Palace Caf had planned to resume business on Dec. 27 in the historic Werlein's building within earshot of the newly returned streetcars clanging along Canal Street.
Other famous restaurants remain closed with extensive damage, most notably Brennan's Restaurant, Commander's Palace, Emeril's Delmonico, Bella Luna and Mr. B's Bistro. In late December, the state reported that just 21 percent of restaurants open in Orleans Parish before Katrina were certified to reopen, compared to 32 percent for the metro region as a whole. But the momentum of so many recent reopenings by high-profile restaurants bodes well for the city's tourism industry as Carnival season approaches.
"We're looking at Mardi Gras as the benchmark that New Orleans is open for business, that we're inviting tourists and conventions back," says Tom Weatherly, spokesman for the Louisiana Restaurant Association. "By opening in January, restaurants have a little warm-up before people hopefully start banging down their doors."
Larry Lovell, a spokesman for the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp., says the city's New Year's celebration will have marked the start of more heavy tourism promotions. More of the museums and other attractions for visitors are back in business, he says, and New Orleans restaurants have always played a big role in the city's appeal to travelers.
That's a point not lost on Dickie Brennan, co-owner of the Palace Caf. If New Orleans is going to invite the world to return for vacations and conventions, Brennan believes, its famed restaurant scene must be in working order.
"We tease our hotelier friends that we don't think people come to New Orleans just to stay in hotels," he says. "We need to get our industry back on track, and the way you do that is by reopening restaurants."
Brennan was able to reopen two of his three restaurants in 2005, with the Bourbon House opening Oct. 5 while the badly flooded Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse remains closed until spring. But that doesn't mean staffing has been easy. Hiring enough workers has been an industry problem from the beginning of the storm recovery, and a growing concern now is the scarcity of affordable housing for those workers who are here. The LRA's Weatherly says restaurant owners are increasingly anxious about what will happen when some temporary housing options now available start to dry up. The housing situation "could get worse than it is now, which is hard to believe," he says.
The LRA's Restaurant Employee Relief Fund, established in September to help cover expenses for restaurant workers returning to the area, has so far raised $44,000, including a recent gift of $20,000 from a New Mexico organization that held a benefit chili cook-off for the fund. Weatherly says other groups are holding similar benefits on the LRA's behalf and more gifts are expected. For instance, Community Coffee and the local dining magazine Culinary Concierge are selling a unique rewards card called the CulCard with proceeds benefiting the LRA fund (see related item in "Food News").
On the housing-supply end of the staffing equation, Brennan and other restaurateurs are still working on an idea they conceived in September to create a "hospitality village" of mobile homes specifically for displaced restaurant workers. A potential site is underneath the Crescent City Connection in Algiers, which features available land and access to the Algiers Point ferry. A shuttle could take workers to the French Quarter and CBD when the ferry stops running for the night. By late December, the proposal was awaiting a response from City Hall.
"French Quarter businesses can't open without (workers), and if we can't get the French Quarter back, why are we even opening hotels and the convention center?" Brennan asks.