Storm risks, the city's economy, the cost of living, options for education and child care -- residents pondering whether to stay and rebuild New Orleans or leave for the promise of another community have some weighty considerations on their plates. For a local college student, though, the prospect of chili-cheese omelets, burgers and "chocolate freeze" milkshakes from her favorite diner was at least one deciding factor.
"I came here for law school just so I could have my Camellia Grill fix regularly. Please come back," reads a small note, signed "Ashleigh." It is part of a patchwork of hundreds of such notes posted by well-wishers on the exterior entryway of the Camellia Grill, the iconic Riverbend diner which has been closed since Hurricane Katrina.
Ashleigh will soon be able to get her fix and -- as part of an expansion plan from a new owner -- people in other cities may also have a chance to learn the appeal that has won her loyalty.
Local restaurateur Hicham Khodr recently bought the Camellia Grill from the family that opened it 60 years ago, and he plans to reopen it sometime before the end of the year. Further, he has a plan to expand the Camellia Grill with new locations outside New Orleans, beginning as soon as the fall of 2007.
Khodr says his first priority with the Camellia Grill is to get the New Orleans dining institution open again and in a manner as close as possible to the way its many devotees remember.
"The feel of the Camellia Grill is not going to change," he says. "I've been interested in the place for years, even before the storm, and I know it's a New Orleans landmark that people love. We're keeping the family traditions that people know there."
The Camellia Grill already has the post-Katrina certificate from the state health department approving it to resume food service and Khodr says the restaurant was not significantly damaged in the storm. His plan is to paint and restore the exterior and modernize some of the behind-the-scenes equipment and systems. The diner will have the same menu, the same style of counter service and, Khodr hopes, some of the same employees if they decide to take their old jobs back. Khodr says many of the employees, scattered by the storm evacuation, have been tracked down and will be contacted about reopening plans.
That should be good news to some of the people posting notes on the communal get-well-soon card they have made of the Camellia Grill's facade. Many of the notes specifically pine for their favorite employees, who were known for their familial hospitality.
"We came from Florida. I'm hungry. I need a handshake. And a milkshake," reads one unsigned note, referring to the hands-on style some of the countermen had when welcoming patrons.
KHODR MOVED TO NEW ORLEANS FROM Lebanon as a teenager in 1981 and has built a business in real estate and local restaurant operations. With partners, he owns the Byblos restaurants and Table One, which they managed to open one month after Hurricane Katrina as one of the city's first post-storm new restaurants.
Khodr is also a partner with Emeril Lagasse at the celebrity chef's French Quarter restaurant NOLA, which opened in 1992 in a St. Louis Street building Khodr owns. Lagasse and Khodr are also ownership partners in the Gally House, the historic building at the corner of Chartres and Toulouse streets.
Khodr would not comment on what, if any, role Lagasse plays in the Camellia Grill plan. Mimi Rice, a spokeswoman for Lagasse, says he is not involved.
The expansion plan for the Camellia Grill is part of Khodr's bid to diversify business risks with locations outside of the New Orleans area -- the importance of which was driven home by the Katrina disaster, he says.
"We're looking to expand in other cities and states as the Camellia Grill of New Orleans," he says.
Byblos is also set to expand out of state. Khodr says he signed a lease in August on real estate in the Vinings area of Atlanta for the next Byblos, which should open there in about six months. The Middle-Eastern restaurant chain now has locations Uptown, in Old Metairie and in the Lakeside Shopping Center food court as well as a grocery and deli on Veterans Memorial Boulevard in Metairie.
The history of the Camellia Grill stretches back almost 60 years. The Schwartz family of New Orleans opened the restaurant in December 1946 and the founder's son, Michael Schwartz, has run it for the past 20 years. Schwartz could not be reached for comment, but Khodr says he had been in negotiations with him for several months to buy the business. He would not disclose the price.
As is the case at many other long-lived New Orleans restaurants, fans of the Camellia Grill are enamored of its ambience and the feeling that nothing much has changed at the place as the decades ticked past. At night, in particular, when the mix of customers could include couples in formalwear having a postprandial chocolate freeze, uniformed cops wolfing club sandwiches and parents beaming as the countermen ceremoniously presented waffles to their young children, the place could seem like a scene of staged nostalgia. And as the notes now posted on its windows testify, the diner played a role beyond just a meal in the life of many of its patrons.
"I miss coming here after every baseball game," reads one note.
"I can't bear the thought of you not being here. My parents dated here. I dated here or came with friends in the late 60s and early 70s. ... Now I've been bringing my kids here," reads another, signed "Janet."
Still, out-of-towners made up a great deal of the diner's business. It was listed in most guidebooks and was frequently recommended as a must-do attraction for visitors. Many of these customers took their place in line outside the Camellia Grill after riding to the Riverbend on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar, which stops near the diner's front door. That streetcar remains out of action as work continues to rebuild its storm-shattered overhead electrical systems. The latest update from the Regional Transit Authority pegs the streetcar line's full operation sometime "in the latter part of 2007."
But Khodr says he is not concerned about the long wait for the streetcar return or the current dearth of tourists.
"Everything is going to come back," he says. "New Orleans will boom, but we can't depend on the government to make that happen. Entrepreneurs of the city, the private sector, that's what will make it happen."
- Tracie Morris Schaefer
- Local restaurateur Hicham Khodr bought the Camellia Grill and plans to reopen it keeping the ambience the same as it has been for the past 60 years later this year. He also will introduce the beloved diner's charms to other cities.