"We had the vision, but we didn't have the reality," Schnoebelen says.
Then Hurricane Katrina changed the reality of New Orleans and altered the plans and outlook of its people. Five months after the storm, the new reality for Schnoebelen and Casebonne is called Iris, the neighborhood bistro that was scheduled to open Wednesday, Jan. 25, in the Riverbend.
Iris -- where Casebonne will run the dining room and Schnoebelen will cook his interpretation of contemporary American cuisine -- is the latest in a distinct boom of new restaurant openings in the city since Katrina. Some, like Table One, were on the drawing board before the storm and pushed ahead anyway. Others, like Iris, were conceived entirely in the post-Katrina experience.
"New Orleans is like a brand new city in a lot of ways," says Schnoebelen. "The community we have now is smaller, it's more intimate and I'm happy to be on the first wave of new things opening here. I think people will be looking for the springtime of New Orleans. We're at the point where new things can crop up."
Schnoebelen and Casebonne wound up in Birmingham, Ala., immediately after the storm and for a while thought they might stay. They got restaurant jobs and even discussed opening a business there. But while driving through the French Quarter during a trip home in September to retrieve belongings, they turned on a point and decided they couldn't stay away. When they learned that their friend Anne Lloyd had decided not to reopen her Caribbean restaurant, Mango House, the couple saw an opportunity to fast-forward the dream of running their own place. They bought the restaurant whole -- from furniture to silverware to the stocked bar -- and reopened on Nov. 1 using the Mango House name and much of its menu. After two months of this, Schnoebelen and Casebonne closed Mango House and renovated the space for its new life as Iris, where the food will draw heavily on Italian and French cooking.
After their own short-lived relocation, Lloyd and her family decided to move back to New Orleans as well. She is now contemplating reopening Mango House in another location.
The prospect of opening a new restaurant in post-Katrina New Orleans lured veteran chef Kevin Vizard back from the brink of emigration. He was chef at Caf Adelaide before the storm. When it was unclear early in September when the restaurant in the Loew's Hotel might reopen, Vizard entertained offers to bring his contemporary Creole cuisine to kitchens in Santa Barbara, Calif., or Nashville, Tenn. But he and his wife decided they couldn't leave New Orleans behind. When Vizard was offered the lease at the former Lulu's in the Garden in the Garden District Hotel for his own restaurant, he grabbed it.
"We just didn't want to leave under these circumstances; no one is going to force us out," says Vizard. "There were all these negative predictions about our city, and I just didn't feel comfortable being part of that attitude."
At press time, he planned a late-January opening for Vizard's on the Avenue, which will be the third time he's opened a local restaurant bearing his name. "I can hear people saying 'Oh, Vizard is opening a restaurant again? Well things must be back to normal'," he jokes. Caf Adelaide reopened in November, but that didn't change Vizard's enthusiasm for his new venture.
"All the restaurants are on a level playing field now when they open or reopen -- it's a fresh start here," he says.
Also getting a fresh start is Crystal Stansburry, who formerly ran a bistro and later a health food deli both called Aquarian's in Faubourg Marigny. Early in January, she opened her new Sidebar Caf on Exchange Alley in the French Quarter, a lunch, dinner and late-night dining spot for salads, grilled fish and sandwiches. Other new additions in the Quarter since Katrina include Courtyard Deli (a po-boy shop with a large, beautiful courtyard and bar on Decatur Street) and Stanley! (the casual breakfast and lunch joint opened by Stella! Chef Scott Boswell in September). Meanwhile, David English, the chef at Cobalt before the storm, has joined restaurateur Vicky Bayley in her new venture Seven on Fulton, which opens on Feb. 13.
Chef Melody Pate and her partners had originally pegged Labor Day Weekend for the opening of Alberta, a Magazine Street restaurant named for the chef's mother, that would have a single nightly seating and prix fixe meals between $85 and $130 per person. The storm came, plans changed and Pate quietly opened the doors of Alberta on Oct. 28 with an untested a la carte menu written the day before. Her friends turned out, neighbors wandered in and word spread. Now the small restaurant is packed most nights. While the disaster changed Alberta's concept for the foreseeable future, Pate believes getting the doors open early in the aftermath has given her fledgling restaurant an incomparable opportunity to establish itself.
"Out of a tragedy, there is the chance for good things to happen, and I think that's what we have here," she says. "New Orleanians are so resilient, and they have respect for people who are going ahead and just doing it despite the hurricane. I think the customers we have now will be loyal ones."