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Tradition With a Twist 

When you invite your family and friends to dinner, you want them to go home with a pleasant memory of great food, a comfortable atmosphere, graceful appointments and an overall fun time. That's how Craig Napoli and his staff feel about every guest who visits his dining room at Cafe Sbisa (1011 Decatur St., 522-5565).

"It's a unique restaurant experience," says Manager Robert Miles. "When the Napolis welcome guests here, they're welcoming you into their home. That's how you'll be treated."

Napoli, who operates the century-old eating standard with his brother Charles Jr., and his father, Charles Sr., characterizes the cuisine as "upscale Creole" and the business as a family restaurant with the heart of a bistro. Cafe Sbisa, first opened in the French Quarter by the Sbisa family in 1899, has changed hands and locations a couple of times and underwent a substantial restoration a few years ago to repair the tolls of time and to open up an elegant French-inspired third-floor area for private parties, corporate events, wedding receptions and other functions. The second floor also offers ample tables as well as dining on a balcony that overlooks bustling Decatur Street and benefits from a jazz band that plays music every day until 10 p.m. It also features the garden room, which has French windows that open up to overlook the patio garden below. The first floor is the main dining area, set up like a café or bistro, with a bar and white-clothed tables. The ground floor also offers patio dining in good weather.

Regardless of where you choose to sit, Napoli promises customers will be pleased with both the cuisine and the service. Open for dinner nightly and brunch on Sunday, Cafe Sbisa's menu is no-fuss and inclusive.

"We serve upscale Creole food; everything has a twist to it," Napoli says. "We make sure no one leaves hungry. We're more of a family restaurant. The starch, the vegetable, everything comes with the entrée." Adopting a family style means you get plenty of food and don't have to wear a coat and tie, but it doesn't mean the dishes will be ordinary.

The blackened redfish, for example, is graced with spices that allow the taste of the fish to come through and is served with corn macque choux and jumbo Gulf shrimp artistically pointed upward around redfish and "touched" with a Creole sauce. The Court-bouillon, another popular entrée, takes an authentic Creole route to preparing this bouillabaisse of Gulf fish, shrimp, crabmeat, mussels and crab claws swimming in a seasoned seafood stew. The appetizer Crawfish Ursuline starts with crawfish tails sauteed with garlic, tomatoes and Creole seasonings tossed in a lemon-butter sauce and served on top of a puff pastry.

Part of Cafe Sbisa's charm, says Miles, is its impeccable service, delivered the way the customer likes it. "The service is not stuffy," he says. "The servers are very attentive, but not peering over your shoulder every minute. I let the waiters read the table and see whether they want a romantic dinner alone or whether they really want to have some fun. We have some characters who work here."

Keeping things loose and flexible is something Napoli says makes his restaurant different than many others. "We don't ever want to get to the point where we're corporate (acting)," he says. "We have our standards we abide by, but I think people are over the prim-and-proper, coat-and-tie phase."

The restaurant commands a list of regular local customers, but also has out-of-town "regulars" who return every time they visit New Orleans, something Napoli is especially proud of in a city where excellent cuisine is plentiful. "We get a good bunch of locals, but we also get a lot of repeat tourists," he says. "We get businesses out of New York and dot-net companies. Playboy comes in six to eight times a year, and the Rams always come to eat when they come in town. The owner came in for brunch one day and now she sends people in every time the team is in New Orleans."

Tourists also seem to enjoy having a good meal while watching the people heading to and from the French Market as well as enjoying the strains of jazz from across the street.

"This is the greatest city in the world," Napoli says. "There are more events here, more history, more everything. The tourists want to get the feel of New Orleans and see the people walking by and hear the music. They can get a good feel for the New Orleans experience here. Locals can also play tourist and bring their families to the French Quarter. It brings back an era the city has forgotten; this (the French Quarter) is the heart and soul of the city."

click to enlarge Cafe Sbisa owner Craig Napoli stands behind the original turn-of-the-century bar in a restaurant that has been serving New Orleans residents and visitors since 1899.
  • Cafe Sbisa owner Craig Napoli stands behind the original turn-of-the-century bar in a restaurant that has been serving New Orleans residents and visitors since 1899.
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