New Orleans Restaurant Scene Rises, Reflecting a Richer City
By Shalia Dewan | New York Times
NEW ORLEANS — By one count there were already 65 restaurants on the three miles of Magazine Street, a major artery through this city’s upscale districts. But on a recent Monday, diners were eager for No. 66. The minute the lights went on at Ivy, an autumnal little lounge with an as-seen-on-TV chef, the curious were at the door.
This city, of course, has always been food-obsessed. But these days it has reached new levels of insatiability. Though the city has fewer people than it did before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, it has 70 percent more restaurants, according to a count by Tom Fitzmorris, a local expert who does not include fast-food or chain restaurants in his tally.
“It’s really something,” said Mr. Fitzmorris, between callers to his three-hour daily radio show about eating out. “It has never stopped going up, even in the summer, which is not a good time for us in the restaurant business.”
Economically speaking, the restaurant boom is a barometer of a city that is more affluent and more educated than it used to be. “Richer cities have more restaurants per capita,” said Jed Kolko, the chief economist of Trulia, the real estate website, who said New Orleans already ranked 14th in the nation on restaurants per person in 2010, just a few years into the recent boom (San Francisco was No. 1).
At the same time, the high concentration of restaurants here has built on itself, as chefs are attracted to a city where eating out is so popular and the most successful ones expand. In that sense, it represents an industry cluster along the lines of the financial industry on Wall Street or high technology in Silicon Valley. More than 10 percent of the jobs in the metropolitan area are in the restaurant business, compared with an average of 8.2 percent nationwide.
“The main difference between those clusters and the restaurant cluster is they’re all selling a service outside the city,” said Enrico Moretti, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley. But to the degree that the restaurants provide food to tourists, he said, they can be counted as exporters. New Orleans may not have much of a manufacturing base, but it sells boatloads of gumbo to millions of visitors.
To be sure, the newcomers on the restaurant scene do not necessarily bother with traditional notions of New Orleans fare. They include Vietnamese storefronts and austerely chic establishments that could as easily be in Brooklyn or Chicago.
An Israeli-owned steakhouse that just opened in the French Quarter sets prices according to how long the beef has been aged. A place in the gentrifying Bywater neighborhood tells customers the original longitude and latitude of the street food on the menu. At another, a straight-faced waitress described a special involving “roast broccoli in a purée of broccoli.”
But the old standbys have not been left out of the action. Several of the city’s most distinguished French Quarter dining rooms, with their hexagonal floor tiles and bentwood chairs, are under new ownership. John Georges, a grocery distribution magnate, newspaper publisher and recent political hopeful who bought the storied Galatoire’s, opened a new restaurant, Galatoire’s 33 Bar & Steak, next door. The lobster Thermidor is $52.
In March, a group of brothers who got their start with a chain of frozen daiquiri bars acquired the 93-year-old Broussard’s and spent over $1 million refurbishing it. The group, Creole Cuisine Restaurant Concepts, owns nine French Quarter restaurants, including a new po’ boy shop. Sales are up 13 percent compared with the same period last year in the same locations, said Zeid Ammari, the chief operating officer. Next year, the group plans to open three new restaurants, two in the suburbs and one in the Quarter.
Despite the abundance of competition, banks have not reduced financing for new establishments, said Jeff Ehlinger, a senior vice president at First Bank and Trust in New Orleans. “That might happen, but it’s not currently happening,” he said. “Most of these restaurants would have to start going by the wayside, and right now they’re doing pretty well.”
Increased tourism explains part of the industry’s success. It has been on the rebound, with nine million visitors last year who spent, according to the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, $6 billion, up from a low of $2.8 billion in 2006. Adjusted for inflation, last year’s total was about the same amount as visitors spent in 2004, the year before the hurricane.
Back then, though, the city had only 809 restaurants. Now it has almost 1,400, which means locals are also driving a lot of the new business. Many of the new places are far from the areas tourists frequent, like Brisbi’s and the Blue Crab, both perched on tall stilts and hoping to resurrect a tradition of lakefront seafood dining that was wiped out by Katrina.
Thanks to the rebuilding boom after the storm, New Orleans largely escaped the recession, losing far fewer jobs than the country as a whole. But the city lost many of its poor families and attracted, in their stead, what are sometimes called YURPs: Young Urban Rebuilding Professionals. Though the median household income in New Orleans is still below the national average, the population has more college degrees and more households that earn over $75,000 a year than it did before the storm.
The city is also attracting experienced restaurant workers like Elle Nihill, who moved from the District of Columbia two months ago in hopes of finding a bartending job but, for now, is waiting tables at Marti’s in the French Quarter.
“I had a 12-top last night, they had seven bottles of wine, the check hit $1,350, and they didn’t even do dessert,” Ms. Nihill reported happily. Would she advise her friends in the industry to move down? “I’m already telling them, get here,” she said. “On this whole staff, only two people are from New Orleans.”
One big question is whether the city’s newfound prosperity will stick or slip away as the rebuilding activity tapers off. The city still lags in education and employment for some segments of the population, particularly black men.
Though tourism is a mainstay of the local economy, restaurant workers make low wages, and officials are looking to investments like a $2.2 billion medical complex to provide good jobs for the future. New Orleans is one of the nation’s top cities in export growth, fueled largely by oil and gas. Tax incentives, as well as the city’s status as a liberal cause célèbre, have attracted film and television crews to New Orleans — their spending nearly tripled from 2008 to 2012.
So eating out is more popular than ever. For two decades, Patrick Singley was satisfied with owning a single small restaurant known as a launching pad for new chefs. In the last couple of months, he has opened two more. One is Ivy, where the chef, Sue Zemanick, has a loyal following, and where hopeful diners were turned away that recent Monday because the restaurant was doing a dry run for invited guests only.
The second, Marti’s, has an unknown chef who hails from the Honey Island Swamp and a soaring dining room with murals that show scenes of City Park. It is on a languishing stretch of Rampart Street that divides the French Quarter from the Treme, the neighborhood made familiar by the HBO show named after it. But five performing arts venues have reopened nearby, and a new streetcar line will soon extend down Rampart. If anything, that will bring still more restaurants.
“I’m kind of ahead of it a little ways,” Mr. Singley said. “I think the big boom will be in two years.”
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