"I was so tired from getting the restaurant open I couldn't even show how touching it was, but inside my heart was bulging with happiness," says Lola's Chef-owner Angel Miranda.
It was a similar scene a block away when Caf Degas reopened Nov. 17. Familiar faces packed the French bistro early, with patrons handing drinks to each other in the tiny front bar and sharing mussels, escargot and hanger steak in a patio dining room.
Most of Mid-City and the adjacent Faubourg St. John neighborhoods took on varying degrees of flooding after Katrina. As life begins to flicker back, restaurants here are among the first businesses to reopen, and their patrons are cheering them on.
"This is what made our neighborhood," says Miranda, who lives next to Lola's. "The restaurants, the grocers, people outside walking with their dogs, their kids. That's who we are here; it's our identity and it's coming back."
Ralph Brennan's restaurant Ralph's on the Park was the first restaurant to reopen in Mid-City when it hosted a capacity crowd on Nov. 9, and business has been steady in the weeks that followed. But only a few blocks away from the warm glow of Ralph's posh dining room, other parts of Mid-City around Canal Street and Carrollton Avenue still have virtually no electricity, no gas service and very few residents. Most restaurants are raised only a step or two above the sidewalk in this area, and the flood has left some owners with devastating losses.
Angelo Brocato Ice Cream & Confectionary, which marked its centennial this summer, took on 5 feet of water. Arthur Brocato, an owner, says it would take months to replace or refurbish the specialized equipment they use and among his many concerns about reopening is the ability of the city to prevent a repeat disaster here.
"At the present time we have no idea as to how long it will take for us to reopen or if it is a viable option for us," says Brocato. "Mid-City had made such a great comeback over the years; what a shame it would be if it were left to die by those in power."
Flooding also ravaged Liuzza's Restaurant and Bar, a neighborhood fixture since 1947, but the owners could not be reached for an update on their plans. The same goes for Katie's Restaurant around the corner, although spray-painted messages around the flood lines outside the restaurant read "We Will Return."
Employees of Mandina's Restaurant have gutted the interior of the Canal Street landmark in preparation for a massive renovation. Olvin Toleado, a manager at the 73-year-old restaurant, says the plan is to tear down the newer buildings that had been added on to the original dining room over the years and rebuild as a single, bigger structure. Mandina's could be open by the fall of 2006, Toleado says. Meanwhile, the owners plan to open an expansion restaurant in Baton Rouge sometime in January to keep employees working.
The Italian restaurant Venezia also intends to reopen, but owner Anthony Bologna can't say when that will be possible. Venezia has been making pizzas on North Carrollton Avenue since 1957 and last year opened a second location on Central Avenue in Jefferson, which is now open. Bologna says big questions remain unanswered about insurance and future staffing for the original restaurant.
"It's scary, nothing looks too promising," he says.
Around the corner, the 81-year-old former church that houses Christian's Restaurant withstood the storm well, but the interior was flooded and its owners are unsure if the area will be able to support an upscale Creole restaurant in the future. "We're wondering who we'd be opening for," says Bobby Bergeron, one of its family owners.
Back around Esplanade Avenue, where flooding was lighter and services more widely available, more restaurants are planning to reopen sooner than later. At press time, Asia Pacific Caf, the BYOB sushi restaurant next door to Caf Degas, was scheduled to open Nov. 26. Meanwhile, employees of the nearby Liuzza's by the Track say they expect the neighborhood joint to reopen in the coming weeks as a bar first with the kitchen resuming service later. Fair Grinds Coffeehouse won't reopen until January, but owners Robert and Elizabeth Thompson are there most days anyway, brewing coffee in the patio and giving it away for free to anyone who comes by. Greg and Mary Sonnier, owners of Gabrielle Restaurant, say they are committed to reopening a restaurant, but are unsure if they will rebuild their damaged Esplanade Avenue location or find a new venue.
Flood water lapped at bar level inside Parkway Tavern & Bakery on Bayou St. John, but owner Jay Nix expects to be serving drinks and roast beef po-boys from the front room by the middle of December while work continues on the main dining room in the rear.
"I was going to wait and make the place pristine again," Nix says. "But I can't wait that long. I want to hear 20 people in here, drinking, eating, talking. I want to get that noise back in here."