Guys are always telling me now how hard it is to find chefs to hire," says chef/restaurateur Adolfo Garcia. "I say, 'Yeah, that's because they're all opening their own restaurants.'"
He should know. Before Hurricane Katrina, Garcia was chef and partner at RioMar restaurant in the Warehouse District. Since 2005, he's opened five restaurants in New Orleans, often partnering with up-and-coming chefs to start them.
Garcia may be more prolific than most, but he's hardly alone: Established restaurateurs are adding more properties, and young chefs are jumping into the business for themselves. Developers are designating spaces for new restaurants in their projects, and some restaurants are clustering in former dining deserts like Freret Street, where a dozen eateries have opened along a half-mile stretch since 2009, and Bywater, where six new restaurants have opened within a few blocks of each other this year. Then there are entrepreneurs who deliver their meals via food trucks and the pop-up restaurant scene; sometimes these ventures grow into brick-and-mortar restaurants.
It adds up to a great surge in dining options this year in New Orleans.
"When I talk with customers now and ask where else they've been eating, it's always a new place," says Chris Montero, executive chef at Cafe B in Old Metairie, which opened in 2011. "For us in the business it means more competition for every diner, but it's an eater's market out there."
Census figures from 2011 show the city's population at just three-quarters of its pre-Katrina level, while the population for the metro region remains 10 percent lower.
Why are so many restaurants opening here now, when the industry has been suffering nationally? How does an area with a significantly reduced post-Katrina population support them?
"You're just not seeing restaurants opening like this in other places," says Stan Harris, president of the Louisiana Restaurant Association (LRA). "To have this growth, even when the city's population is still down, it's just flabbergasting." (See "Opening soon," page 31.)
While anecdotal evidence of the boom abounds, a precise figure on how many restaurants are open now is harder to come by because of the different criteria used to count restaurants and define markets. The state's parish-by-parish database of food-service permits generally is disregarded because it includes not only restaurants but everything from grocery stores to nursing homes. New Orleans tourism officials and other industry watchers instead have adopted the tally of restaurants food writer/radio host Tom Fitzmorris maintains on The New Orleans Menu website. It shows an increase from roughly 800 restaurants before Hurricane Katrina to more than 1,300 today, and Fitzmorris adds to that number nearly every week.
This count is highly customized, however. It includes restaurants in all of Orleans Parish and most of Jefferson Parish, but only in certain towns in five other surrounding parishes. It also excludes fast food outlets, take-out and delivery-only operations and most national chains. Fitzmorris acknowledges his list is selective but says, "I have always used these same criteria, so it's a steady statistic."
"It's not spot-on but we think his numbers are pretty dependable when you're talking about sit-down restaurants," says John Williams, director of the Lester E. Kabacoff School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Administration at the University of New Orleans (UNO). "It gives you a gauge for what's happening."
Those tracking restaurants nationally tend to analyze a larger regional picture. For instance, in its annual growth index released earlier this year, the market research company Nielsen Claritas reported 3,374 restaurants in the five-parish New Orleans area, including independent businesses and chains. That was an increase of 147 restaurants from the previous year and up by 523 restaurants from the total in its 2007 index. (Nielsen Claritas didn't respond to a request for pre-Katrina data.)
That kind of growth is at odds with industry trends nationally. According to the New York-based market research firm NPD Group, while the overall restaurant industry is seeing a slight increase in visits and spending this year, the full-service sector, as opposed to fast food, continues to see declines.
"The restaurant industry was hit hard by the recession and hasn't yet fully recovered," says Kim McLynn, a spokeswoman for NPD Group.
The November edition of the National Restaurant Association's Restaurant Performance Index, which tracks the industry's health and outlook, fell to its lowest level in more than a year, with twice as many restaurant operators expecting business to worsen than improve.
Around the New Orleans restaurant scene today, though, you're more likely to hear optimism.
"A lot of people have been waiting for the stumble on this, and it hasn't come." Williams says. "The restaurants here are doing very well."
Some new restaurateurs are finding their dining rooms packed and their waiting lists or reservation books full. "We're always asking ourselves what we did in a past life to deserve this success," says Kim Nguyen, whose Vietnamese cafe Magasin has been a hit since it opened Uptown in February.
Chef Michael Doyle is similarly surprised by the public's response to Maurepas Foods, the casual, intensely seasonal restaurant Doyle opened in January near his Bywater home. Many nights every table is full and much of the open space in this one-time corner store is filled with people waiting for tables.
Doyle's plan to open Maurepas Foods in a neighborhood that had not been known for restaurants initially drew skeptics.
"We had a banker come down here and turn around without even getting out of his car," Doyle says. "He pulled up, drove off and then emailed me later saying, 'There's just no way.'"
Just as new parts of town are growing into restaurant destin-ations, the types of new restaurants are different — from New York-style slices at Pizza Delicious, a former pop-up that went fulltime last month; to Root, a yearling in the Warehouse District where chef Phillip Lopez prepares highly conceptual cuisine in a kitchen loaded with high-tech gear like dehydrators and sous vide cookers. Lopez, a New Orleans native, says he opened Root in response to the stagnation he felt at traditional restaurants here. He believes a craving for new culinary ideas is propelling new restaurant growth.