This kind of data fills the pages of the 2002 Zagat Survey of New Orleans. Calculated from the votes of 1,750 survey participants, the latest Zagat inventories the most popular restaurants and nightlife spots. The surveyors are self-appointed restaurant enthusiasts who submit evaluation forms in exchange for a free copy of the published survey. First established in New York City in 1979 -- and celebrating 15 years in New Orleans -- Zagat is food democracy in action. This is how a beloved sno-ball stand like Hansen's Sno-Bliz can score a remarkable 27 out of a possible 30 points, beating out even always-packed restaurants like La Crepe Nanou and Jaques-Imo's (25 and 26, respectively).
Newcomers Lilette (23), Horinoya (22), Maison Bleu (21) and Muriel's (20) opened early enough in 2001 to receive a rating in the new guide. But tucked in this year's signature maroon-covered Zagat is also a list of the top five best unrated newcomer restaurants: Restaurant August, Chateaubriand, Cobalt, Rene Bistrot and Stella! Represented by four powerhouse chefs and one ambitious greenhorn, these five restaurants are of a caliber that we don't often encounter all opening within the same 12 months. And they had even more competition; several other high-end and well-regarded venues also opened later last year, among them Cafe Negril, Morton's of Chicago, Noble Bistro, Rico's Bucktown, and Belle Forche.
How were the top five singled out? That's where Sharon Litwin -- who with Pat Denechaud co-edited the local guide -- came in. "Those restaurants were too new to be included on the survey [forms]," explains Zagat national communications director Michelle Lehman. "But they did open before the book came out, and they were very hot. The local editor, who is very in tune with the restaurant scene in New Orleans, basically picks the newcomers."
Litwin, also the executive director of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, says that, after 15 years with Zagat, choosing the five wasn't a tough call. With household names like chefs John Besh, Gerard Crozier, Susan Spicer, Rene Bajeux -- and the new-to-the-scene Scott Boswell -- it would be difficult to dispute her decisions.
Hotel restaurants in this country suffer a notoriously bad rap. This is a concern even at Susan Spicer's Cobalt -- which with Hotel Monaco is owned by Kimpton Group, a hotel group known to be particularly restaurant- and chef-oriented. Says Spicer, "Because there's been such a stigma about hotel restaurants they refer to [Cobalt] as 'the restaurant adjacent to the hotel.'"
In fact, three of the five Zagat-picked newcomers opened in hotels. Bajeux opened Rene Bistrot near Spicer's Cobalt in the CBD, in the Renaissance Pere Marquette Hotel. And Boswell found a space for Stella! in the French Quarter's antique Hotel Provincial.
Superior food in hotel restaurants is not a new concept for any of the five chefs. Crozier's first job in the United States was at a Wisconsin resort. Before opening her first restaurant, Bayona, Spicer worked at both Louis XVI in the St. Louis Hotel and The Bistro at Maison de Ville. And Besh, Bajeux and Boswell all put in time at the Windsor Court Hotel's Grill Room.
Spicer says she has learned that she prefers being an independent operator, like she does at Bayona and her other CBD restaurant, Herbsaint. But she says that working with a hotel group is helping her grow as a chef. And she thinks organizations like Kimpton Group are wise to improve the reputation of the food found in hotels. "I think hotels are catching onto the fact that the more high-profile or food-oriented or chef-oriented they are, they might actually make some profit," she says.
Boswell, who moved here from Big Sky, Mont., never intended for his first restaurant to be affiliated with a hotel. Once he set eyes on the space he now leases for Stella!, however, he knew it was what he had been waiting for. Besides the benefit of the occasional banquet and private party that a French Quarter hotel attracts, he hardly feels affected by the location. "I have free reign of this space," he says. "I pay enough money that they don't get involved."
Bajeux likewise says he enjoys total freedom at the Pere Marquette Hotel -- he even helped design the restaurant. Plus, he values the deep pockets of a hotel group. "I can offer great benefits to my sous-chef and my cooks," he says. "If I was a single owner of a restaurant ... I could not give insurance. Cooks work hard, and I don't feel like they should be exploited anymore."
When Bajeux left his four-year post as executive chef at The Grill Room, he moved just a few blocks up Common Street. It's a short walk but an extreme change of scenery. Rather than The Grill Room's posh surroundings and cuisine, Rene Bistrot is hip and comfy, with ambient lighting, banquettes and French country cooking. Why did Bajeux ditch the haute for the bistro? First, he says, "It was really important for me to open a restaurant that was affordable."
Most importantly, bistro cooking speaks to him: the stewed chicken, the cassoulet, the steak frites, the rotisseried meats, the housemade sausages and pates. It's what he learned first when he began an apprenticeship in France at age 14; he later opened three bistros in Chicago. "As far as pure cooking goes, I think bistro is more cooking in the sense that you're braising, you're poaching, you do more slow-cooking. To me, there's much more technique there."
On the flip side, John Besh went from upscale to upper scale when he moved from Artesia, the countryside restaurant outside Abita Springs, to August, smack dab into downtown New Orleans. The former Pastore's restaurant building underwent a complete renovation before August blossomed into one of the most elegant restaurants around; foie gras with champagne gelee, peeled pear tomatoes on a "BLT" and a stunning wine list reflect the restaurant's high aspirations.
"I can really be a lot more expressive with presentation," says Besh. "If I want to do something a little outlandish I can do it here and it will work."
To most local diners, Besh and Bajeux seemed to slide from one project to the other last year with graceful transition. Gerard Crozier, on the other hand, seemed MIA after selling Crozier's Bistro, the Metairie landmark he ran with his wife, Eveline. "We just wanted to take a year sabbatical," Crozier explains. The thrill of temporary retirement was short-lived, though. "At first it's great, and then after awhile you wake up in the morning and there's nobody's ass to kick," he jokes. "When Tuesday is Sunday and Wednesday is Sunday, you don't look forward to the weekend."
When the couple resurfaced, it was in a steakhouse. They went from Dover sole and coq au vin to hangar steaks and Chateaubriand sliced tableside. Why? They wanted another challenge. That and, "American people will always eat steak. I don't care what they tell us. That Mad Cow Disease and that stuff, that's over the Atlantic."
Crozier has another theory for why it's healthy to begin again from scratch: to attract a fresh crowd. "When we opened the business, we had a lot of people coming who were in their 40s and 50s. Half of them are dead now. A lot of people move out of town, too. Some people are divorced, and they don't want to show up with their new wife or girlfriend."
These five chefs share countless other similarities. Boswell, Besh and Spicer are all Louisiana natives who have studied in Europe; Crozier and Bajeux are both Frenchmen who unintentionally landed in New Orleans, and then stayed. Most lament the poor staffing pool the city has to offer lately. They collectively note that the local market is nearing saturation with high-end restaurants; meanwhile, they welcome the competition.
The chefs who were around 10 years ago compare the current restaurant boom to the one in the early 1990s, when Bayona, Emeril's, Pelican Club, Bella Luna, Peristyle, Gabrielle, Gautreau's (re-opening) and Crozier's in Metairie all opened within a two-year span. And you can hear a little shiver in each of their voices when you ask what it was like to be involved in a new restaurant venture in the weeks following Sept. 11.
But the sentiments that recur most often are a sort of wonderment and a sense of providence. All five chefs hand a good bit of credit to serendipity for their spot on the Zagat list this year.
Boswell didn't leave Louisiana for culinary school until he was 28 years old -- just 12 years ago. When he did, he set a goal to open his first restaurant before he turned 40. In the years between, he scoured France, Italy, Tokyo, New York and Montana for a space that felt like his. He had worked in New Orleans' kitchens before, but he did not want to come home this time. Then providence stepped in. "I was one year away -- I was 39," he says. "I called my mom who lives right across the street from the hotel [Provincial] and said 'Find me a location and I'll move back home.' Six weeks later she called me back."
Stella! opened three weeks before his 40th birthday.
Besh has a similar story. Not long ago, he wanted to buy Artesia, where he had worked just shy of four years. "So after going around and around and around, well that door just shut and there was no going through it," he says.
He embarked on a search for another place of his own. The doors continued to shut until he met August "Duke" Robin, who was still busy renovating the restaurant. "I came here and looked at the space. I knew right away. I'm tellin' ya. All of a sudden things just really fell into place."
Spicer says that's how she has always done business. "I'm not a super-ambitious person believe it or not," she claims. "I wouldn't have chosen to open a new restaurant so close on the heels of Herbsaint, because it was still pretty new." Nevertheless, the Kimpton Group pursued her, and things just sort of fell into place. "I knew they were going to bring in some sort of name chef to do this. So I thought, either way it was going to be competition for my other two restaurants. So I might as well be friendly competition that I can profit from." Spicer collaborates at Cobalt with Chef Brack May.
Crozier might never have entered the country had a French friend of his not "chickened out" at the last minute on the job in Wisconsin. When Crozier heard that the position was open, he married Eveline and within two months landed jacketless but happy in the chill of winter. A year and a half later, Crozier followed the Royal Sonesta to Miami, and then Chef Willy Coln to New Orleans. "I had no idea I would ever even visit here," he muses. "It's ironic because there's so much French culture here."
After moving to Montreal at 19, Crozier's countryman, Bajeux, bounced from Chicago to Maui to Los Angeles and back to Chicago. The Grill Room nabbed him in a moment of transition, and it kept him in New Orleans until he was ready to settle down. "I felt like this business is a gypsy business, and I didn't want to move anymore," he says. "I feel very comfortable here. My kids are happy. My wife loves it, which is half the battle. I think with this city, you either love it or hate it. I happen to love it."