"We opened on Jan. 18, on the turning over of Capricorn to Aquarius," says Petersen, who is not only business partner but also fiance to Stansbury. "We're both Aquarians, so it was important that we open on that day." Families of both the owners pitched in to paint, renovate, clean and install the trappings of a restaurant and were still applying finishing touches when the doors opened.
It was appropriate that the couple should honor the cosmic forces in naming the restaurant, for it was a harmonic convergence of events that led to its conception. It started on an inspirational beach in St. Thomas -- a likeness of which now graces a full-room mural in the restaurant's restroom -- with ruminations about needing to get out of a rut. When they returned to New Orleans, they learned that a building that had fallen into disrepair across the street from their residence was available for rent. That same day the couple toured the balcony-level commercial space -- which is accessed through a street-level door at 705 Franklin St. -- sealed the deal and started planning the restaurant.
"It all happened in less than 24 hours," she says. "We've never been in the restaurant business before ... but it all began to fall into place like a domino effect."
Although they had never before operated a restaurant or worked extensively in the industry, Stansbury had cooked for events in and around the Los Angeles and Malibu areas a few years ago simply because of his reputation for creative cuisine. When the couple moved into the Marigny they began cooking in their backyard on Sundays for an ever-growing circle of friends, and the dishes they served in that setting have now made it into the kitchen at Aquarians in several versions, depending on what is fresh at the market on a given day.
"We go buy the food every day," Stansbury says. "We have a menu, but we do variations of what's on there depending on what's freshest at the market. If we're doing spinach and blueberries but the blueberries don't look good one day, we'll change to raspberries or whatever looks best. Our menu is what we used to cook for each other at home."
The food is healthful and prepared grilled, baked or steamed to order; the restaurant doesn't even own a deep fryer. It's got a laid-back attitude and a non-hurried pace. Because Stansbury doesn't prepare any dishes until they are ordered, Aquarians has adopted a friendly, comfortable atmosphere that's more like someone's living room than a bustling food purveyor.
"Everything is made to order, so it takes a little time," Stansbury says. "If you're in a rush, don't come here. Most people who do come stay about three hours. Even after they've eaten, they just sit around and hang out. That's why we decided to make it like a house."
The food ranges from salmon, seafood and chicken to beef, with Tuesday night featuring a 10-oz. New York Strip steak with vegetables and a house salad for $12. To call the Divine Salad a house salad is selling it short, however; it includes almost everything a chef salad has on it except the meat. Other dishes include lots of fresh fruit, and there are fish and shrimp tacos, grilled salmon, crab cakes and more. Plus, if customers tell Stansbury that they want something not on the menu he'll pick it up at market and cook it up the next time they come in.
"We want to give them what they want to eat," the chef says. "We don't want anyone to leave hungry. If you leave hungry, I'll feed you more for free." A great finish for any of the meals is homemade all-natural ice cream made by the Cosmic Creamery down the street, which has become such a popular item that Stansbury now sells it in take-home sizes in flavors such as mandarin orange basil and mango allspice. "It's the best ice cream in the city," he says. "Some people come just to get the ice cream and sit around and visit for a while."
It's hard to tell whether the couple is more focused on a money-making business or a great place to entertain their friends and meet neighbors from the area. "The neighborhood is totally great," Petersen says. "The neighbors have been supportive and come here since the beginning. It's a true neighborhood joint." Many, Stansbury adds, have become regulars who eat at Aquarians two to three times a week.
Currently, the restaurant is open from 6 p.m. to midnight for dinner Tuesday through Sunday and will handle private parties as well. There is a private balcony that can accommodate two diners and another balcony facing Royal Street that provides a wonderful view of the city and any fireworks displays on the river. Aquarians was open for lunch during the early days before the weather got hot and may open at mid-day again when temperatures are more suitable.
"We like to open all the windows and let the feng shui flow through," Petersen says, who painted the dining room in a sunflower gold reminiscent of Monet's famous painting and placed colorful artwork on the walls. "As with the produce and using what looks best at the market, lots of other things may vary due to Mother Nature; we'll walk to her beat." So far it's been a star-graced path.