The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival inspires countless personal rituals, and one many people share is a visit to Liuzza's by the Track (1518 N. Lopez St., 504-218-7888; www.facebook.com/liuzzas), a tavern near the Fair Grounds Race Course and Slots known for its gumbo and barbecue shrimp po-boys. Though the building had long been a bar, its culinary reputation accrued after Billy Gruber and business partner Jimmy Lemarie bought it in 1996. Gruber is no longer involved in the day-to-day operations at Liuzza's by the Track, instead keeping busy with consulting work for other restaurants.
What was Liuzza's by the Track like when you took it over?
Gruber: It was really just a dive with a bar and a pool table. I remember someone told me after we got into it, "You got the horse racing season and Jazz Fest season, you got it made." Well, great, but that's only four months and a few weeks. That's how we realized we had to make it a destination for people all year, and the way to do that was with the food.
You're consulting for new restaurants now. What's a big difference between opening a restaurant today compared with when you started?
G: Drive around town these days and try to find a dead restaurant. This is the first time I can ever remember in this city when you can't find an empty place with a hood and a grease trap that's ready to go. There are just so many restaurants, and we have so much variety now. But that's also why you see places that were little shotguns or storefronts getting turned into restaurants. All the old places you used to be able to get are snapped up.
Your father ran restaurants and you grew up in the business. Did you ever consider a different career path?
G: I don't call it growing up in the restaurant business, I call it a curse. Once you get in the business and you own something and you work on it every day, you feel the passion and you can't go do something else. I'm at this point in the journey of life where I should be taking a break, but I can't. You just can't leave it. Like I say, it's a curse. — IAN MCNULTY