Hassan and Zohreh Khaleghi didn't know what they were getting into when they picked a location for the Flaming Torch (737 Octavia St., 895-0900; www.flamingtorchnola.com). The building, formerly a German bakery, had dirt floors and an unsteady oyster shell foundation.
"Our friends said, 'You can't even open a hot dog stand there,'" says Zohreh, who opened the restaurant with her husband in 2004. After a year and a half of renovations, the building featured a new floor, new walls and a new entrance closer to the bustling activity of Magazine Street. The only original structure still visible is a brick column fireplace separating the bar from the dining room.
The menu is classic French with a continental flair. Traditional French onion soup, coq au vin and salade nicoise appear alongside barbecue shrimp, oyster la Madrague (fried oysters with creamy spinach) and crevettes Sazerac (shrimp sauteed with beer, whiskey and spices). Specials and fish entrees change with the seasons. "We only have a little, tiny freezer," Zohreh says. "No frozen meats or fish."
Before getting into the restaurant business, Hassan managed 25 hotels around the country. When the Khaleghis started a family, Hassan wanted a job that would keep him near home with his two boys. After running more casual bars and grills, the Khaleghis decided to open a restaurant.
With more than 20 years of experience in the hospitality industry, the Khaleghis understand how to reach many different kinds of customers. For budget-conscious oenophiles, The Flaming Torch's weekly wine specials feature a $25 to $30 bottle from its list of 85 selections. To cater to New Orleans Saints fans who might otherwise forsake Sunday brunch in favor of the game, Hassan put a TV on the old brick fireplace. "After five years, I gave in," he says. Few guests come solely to watch the game, but many step away from their table to periodically check the score.
The Khaleghis serve lunch and dinner seven days a week to customers they consider friends. "We are so pleased because people have been really supportive," Zohreh says.