When Hurricane Katrina's winds subsided, Brenda Darr left her CBD apartment and started driving out of town. But she didn't make it very far before turning around and heading for her restaurant, Fire A Restaurant, which she had opened in May in a renovated firehouse in the Lower Garden District.
"I couldn't leave it, and no one in my family could understand that," Darr says. "But to me it would be like leaving my child behind."
The 92-year-old building was unscathed by Katrina, and Darr watched over the place through the tumult of the storm's immediate aftermath. Eventually she did leave the city, but soon returned, and by Oct. 21 she reopened Fire for lunch and dinner.
"Everyone I knew was saying, 'Why are you in such a hurry? -- no one's there,' but I had to put my life back together and my restaurant is my life," she says.
Like other restaurateurs who have reopened, Darr's efforts are being rewarded by a steady flow of customers, many who are checking out the new place for the first time. "People say they're just glad we don't have hamburgers on the menu," she says.
Considerations for reopening businesses after the hurricane are as varied as owners' individual situations. But in areas where it is possible to open, many of the first restaurants back on the scene were the city's newest restaurants before Katrina. They are typically smaller operations with less staffing needs than the city's long-established dining institutions. They also tend to have an entrepreneurial owner at the helm, plus the onus of loans and debt from recent start-up costs.
"We had planned to have a big party for our anniversary, but now just being open is celebration enough," says Jenry Schorling, owner of Nardo's Trattoria. Schorling and Chef Robert Iaccarino converted the scruffy Uptown barroom Norby's into a polished and welcoming neighborhood Italian restaurant last year. They reopened Oct. 17 with little fanfare, but nevertheless had an instant stream of patrons eating up their lasagna and chicken Parmesan.
Examples of new restaurants that have already reopened cover the culinary field, ranging from the casual Mediterranean classics of the Nile Cafe on Magazine Street to the contemporary fare of One Restaurant & Lounge in Riverbend to the slices and pies at Brooklyn Pizza, which now operates from a trailer parked near its flood-damaged storefront on Airline Drive.
Hassan Khaleghi says it was vital for him to reopen his Uptown bistro, the Flaming Torch, as soon as possible to keep the year-old restaurant in the top of patrons' minds.
"We worked so hard to get some attention after we first opened, we don't want to lose any of our momentum," says Khaleghi, who reopened the Flaming Torch on Oct. 14: "We opened with a lot of energy and motivation to get our business running again."
Getting restaurants back in business again is also a vote of confidence in the city's recovery, says Chef Tom Wolfe. His third restaurant, Wolfe's in the Warehouse District, has been open for more days since Katrina than it had been before the storm. The restaurant is in the Marriott Hotel directly across from Hall A of the Convention Center, the scene of such suffering and controversy after the storm. But repairs went swiftly and Wolfe was able to open in the last days of September with a buffet, which has since been replaced with a la carte menus. Considering New Orleans' acclaimed cuisine, Wolfe believes the world is looking to its restaurant scene for signs of progress after the storm.
"We can show that New Orleans is back by reopening our restaurants, and we can show the city who the strong leaders are for our recovery," he says.
Peristyle, the French Quarter restaurant Wolfe took over in 2004, reopened in October. He also plans to reopen his West End restaurant, Wolfe's of New Orleans, though the date is uncertain.
Some restaurants that were still in the planning phase when the storm hit are now open, including Table One on the edge of the Lower Garden District. The owners of the Byblos restaurants opened Table One in the former Living Room location -- itself a recently renovated space -- the first week of October to lines of waiting patrons. Gerard Maras, formerly chef at Ralph's on the Park and a slew of other notable restaurants, is now in charge of the kitchen.
Down Magazine Street, Dana Stovall and Chef Melody Pate have opened a new restaurant called Alberta. Conceived before the storm with a single nightly seating and table d'hote format in mind, Alberta instead made its post-Katrina debut with a menu offering more choice than most upscale restaurants can presently muster. On the Northshore, the former Artesia Restaurant has new owners and a new name, Longbranch. The restaurant reopened in Abita Springs in September even as felled trees still blocked some of the country roads around it.
Katrina actually advanced the opening date for Stanley, a casual breakfast and lunch spot in the French Quarter opened by Chef Scott Boswell near his first restaurant, Stella! Boswell had closed Stella! in the summer for extensive renovations and planned to open this second restaurant in October. But after Katrina he got cooking at Stanley, which opened Sept. 22, putting employees from Stella! to work serving some of the first restaurant meals to be had in the city. He expects to reopen his more feminine restaurant in December.
"I worked really hard to open Stella! and create what I did there in four and a half years and I'll be damned if I was going to lose everything," says Boswell. "Essentially, we all have to start over, and my best chance is to build on what I had and not lose that, keep my managers, keep as many of my people as possible."
- Ian McNulty
- Katrina actually advanced the opening date for Stanley Chef Scott Boswell's counterpart to Stella! whose offerings include an oyster po-boy.