RioMar's owners reopened six weeks after Hurricane Katrina with a three-dish menu, a self-service bar and a lot of uncertainty about the business they could attract to their upscale Spanish and Latin American seafood restaurant just two blocks from the Convention Center.
Customers would pay cash at the door to co-owner Nick Bazan, grab a drink from the bar and then pick up an order of fried chicken or shrimp directly from Chef Adolfo Garcia at the kitchen window.
"We had to open up; we couldn't just sit on our hands," says Bazan. "We thought we'd be feeding FEMA people though, serving all these out-of-town workers, so we opened up like a cafeteria. But from day one the people in here were locals, our neighbors here in the Warehouse District."
RioMar's selection is growing almost daily and most of the best-selling seafood dishes from its former menu are back, including a choice of two ceviches.
"Our goal is to transcend all this and get it back to the old RioMar," says Bazan.
One step at a time, New Orleans restaurants are moving closer to a semblance of normalcy, expanding from the first basic toeholds they established for service, hours and menu choice to get back in business.
When K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen reopened Oct. 18, for instance, it was with a celebratory mood up front and a mad scramble behind the scenes. The Storyville Stompers Brass Band played upbeat tunes outside and Chef Paul Prudhomme greeted patrons at the door. Inside, managers from Prudhomme's other business, the Magic Seasoning Blends spice company, were pressed into service waiting tables, since so few of the previous staff had yet returned.
At this writing, the return to business of K-Paul's and Ralph Brennan's Bacco's is a rarity among the truly famous New Orleans restaurants. Bayona hopes to open in mid-November, while Arnaud's Restaurant is planning to reopen Dec. 1. Galatoire's Restaurant and Antoine's Restaurant are both shooting for a January reopening and, at press time, managers from Commander's Palace were meeting to determine the timeline for the landmark restaurant's return.
Restaurateurs who have reopened are finding their efforts rewarded by a steady flow of patrons who seem open-minded about the limitations that persist.
People have been jamming Clancy's Restaurant since its Oct. 17 return, creating minor traffic jams on the surrounding Uptown streets as well as around the narrow bar inside. The menu is missing some signature dishes, like the oysters with brie and the smoked softshell crab, but in the dining room it feels like none of the restaurant's regulars are missing the chance to grab a table.
The scene is much the same at casual eateries as well.
"A lot of people still can't cook at home, and everyone wants to get out of their houses after working on them all day, so they hang out here," says Jammer Orintas, co-owner of Theo's Neighborhood Pizza.
Like countless others, Orintas and his partners found the refrigerator at their Uptown pizzeria ruined by the time they returned to the city. That put a severe limit on the ingredients they could keep on hand. So when Theo's came back Oct. 6, the menu had a choice of just four pizza toppings, plus beer and Coke.
Orintas says Uptowners seemed to grow tired of staying in their storm-damaged houses and quickly turned Theo's into a neighborhood nexus, with random reunions of friends that often spilled onto the Magazine Street sidewalk, with wide, glassy-eyed expressions and hugs trumping handshakes. Nearby, Le Petite Grocery reopened Oct. 18 with a limited but welcome menu for the neighborhood's fine-dining fans.
Further up Magazine Street, the only limitations at the French-Italian hybrid Lilette are the ones Chef-owner John Harris imposed on himself as he restored his staffing. Other restaurants are seating customers wherever they can, but Harris decided to serve only in Lilette's petite main dining room and a few sidewalk tables, foregoing 25 seats in the patio.
"I didn't want long waits and poor service, I only wanted to do what we were prepared for," Harris says.
So the small dining room and reservation book stay full, as does the restaurant's inventive menu. Harris says sourcing his menu took a determined effort and brought some princely air-shipping bills, but Lilette is now only a few dishes shy of its pre-Katrina norm. Harris even revamped his menu for autumn, adding specials like king crab claws and braised short ribs with gnocchi.
"Everyone wants to get back to normal and experience the things they knew before. That's what we're trying to do here," Harris says.
Restaurateurs who escaped major damage from Katrina and its aftermath may be counting their blessings, but getting back to business still hasn't been easy for any of them. They have had to cope with spoiled food, lost revenues, missing employees and, like all business owners, great uncertainty for the future. Still, restaurant owners say getting their doors open again and seeing their regulars begin to return has made them much more optimistic.
"Whatever it takes, it feels like a small price to pay to be back home now," says Bazan at RioMar. "There was a point there when we thought we lost everything."
- David Lee Simmons
- Like many other New Orleans restaurants, Le Petite Grocery reopened Oct. 18 with a limited menu, but hopes to grow as the city itself does the same.