It speaks to the combination of perseverance and defiance that was the theme for so many New Orleans restaurants in 2006, a year that began with seemingly impossible odds stacked against them but which ended with abundant proof that just about anything is possible.
At this time last year, restaurant windows across the city were still more likely to be boarded up than to display "open" signs. Local customers were dispersed, employees were missing, tourists and conventioneers all but nonexistent. Kitchens were ruined, roofs tattered and owners were battling insurance companies, trying to plan their own future and running on fumes.
Many of those problems persist as 2006 comes to a close, but the balance has reversed, with most of the city's restaurants open, sometimes through heroic circumstances and often only with a lot of help from friends and supporters.
For instance, Celestine Dunbar got her Dunbar's Creole Cooking back in business not at her badly flooded restaurant space on Freret Street, but rather a few blocks away inside a student center at Loyola University, long a source of customers for Dunbar's bargain-priced chicken, red beans and fried seafood. The Blancher family, owners of Ye Olde College Inn, decided not to try to repair the flooded building that housed the Carrollton comfort-food institution since 1933 but instead moved right next door to a better building to serve a thoroughly updated menu.
By summertime, all of the city's old-line French Creole restaurants reopened, including some that needed extensive repairs. Antoine's added Sunday jazz brunch for the first time in its 166-year history and Tujague's Restaurant quietly entered its 150th year in business. Angelo Brocato's Confectionary & Ice Cream marked its 101st birthday by rebuilding and reopening in Mid-City. The Camellia Grill got a new owner, restaurateur Hicham Khodr, who has pledged to reopen the 60-year-old Riverbend diner just as its many fans remember it.
But the news for local restaurants and those who love them was not always good as speculation on the return of some popular restaurants was put to rest. The storm-damaged Bella Luna in the French Market won't reopen, nor will La Riveria in Metairie. French-born chef Rene Bajeux said in September he would be leaving the city and his restaurant, Rene Bistrot in the Renaissance Pere Marquette hotel, but he has continued to operate the bistro, serving lunch only in the lobby. At this writing, the future also is uncertain for the Bistro at Maison de Ville, the intimate French bistro in the heart of the French Quarter. The Maison de Ville hotel closed the restaurant abruptly at the start of the summer and said it might reopen in the fall. It remains closed, though management now says it might reopen in January.
The counterpoint to these and other losses, however, has been a surge of new restaurateurs or local chefs with a mind to expand. Some of the new places for 2006 are among the most exciting in the city, such as Iris in the Riverbend (which replaced Mango House) and the Argentine-style steakhouse La Boca (which replaced the Warehouse District location of Taqueria Corona) or the upscale Cajun venture Cochon near the convention center. The city's once-slim array of Latin American food grew exponentially during 2006 as casual Mexican and Central American restaurants have proliferated across New Orleans and its suburbs.
Restaurants and New Orleans food enthusiasts alike found creative ways to support their industry and others struggling with the recovery. Based in Oxford, Miss., the Southern Foodways Alliance has all but adopted Willie Mae's Scotch House, a tiny Creole soul food restaurant in the Treme that is being rebuilt by volunteers and money from numerous fundraisers. Money from across the country has flowed to the Louisiana Restaurant Association's Restaurant Employee Relief Fund, which helps defray the costs of local restaurant workers trying to return to the area.
Local restaurants and chefs were not only beneficiaries of goodwill but helped marshal support for others. Galatoire's Restaurant broke from its "no reservations" tradition for its downstairs dining room by auctioning coveted seats for the Friday lunches before Mardi Gras and Christmas, raising a combined $150,000 for hurricane-recovery efforts and children's charities. Emeril Lagasse's second annual Carnivale du Vin wine auction returned to New Orleans after an emergency relocation in 2005 to Las Vegas. The celebrity chef's guests ponied up $2.5 million in one night to support his foundation, which funds local children's educational programs.
At this time last year, New Orleanians were looking to the new year and the return of some of their favorite restaurants, and not just so they would have more places to dine out. For people who attach at least part of the city's irreplaceable identity to its food culture, each reopening was a validation and cause for celebration. Entering the second full year of a plodding and often frustrating recovery effort, those restaurants still working to reopen -- like Tony Angelo's in Lakeview, Mandina's and Venezia in Mid-City, Mr. B's Bistro in the French Quarter and Gautreau's Uptown -- will again provide reasons for celebration in a city that surely needs them.