A year ago, before Katrina was anything except a name on a list of potential storms for 2005, local restaurateurs Crystal and Danny Stansbury were getting ready to move to the Virgin Islands. They had tried their hand at running restaurants in the Faubourg Marigny -- a second-floor bistro called Aquarians and later a health-food deli called Aquarians Marketplace. Both had closed, and it seemed like the right time for the young couple to get a change of scenery.
Enter the most destructive storm in the nation's history, and they wound up not in the Caribbean but back in the local restaurant business. In February they opened their third restaurant, a lunch, dinner and late-night place called the Sidebar Caf located in a historic building on picturesque Exchange Alley in the French Quarter.
"Katrina graced us with her presence and we changed our plans, we decided we definitely would not abandon New Orleans. We wanted to stay here and rebuild with everyone else," says Crystal.
With the Stansbury's about-face, the Sidebar Caf joined the extraordinary wave of new restaurant openings that has occurred in postdiluvian New Orleans. It's been happening all over the city and its suburbs. In the French Quarter in particular, a crop of new eateries has turned up as eager restaurateurs pounce on locations where the previous owners decided not to return.
In November, Courtyard Deli & Po-boys opened for business on Decatur Street near the French Market. The name is a reference to the deep courtyard stretching back beyond the front bar and dining room, a space that will be familiar to those who frequented the popular but long-gone G&E Courtyard Grill, which occupied the same space in the 1990s. Just before Katrina, it was a Middle Eastern restaurant called Caf Pyramids.
Around the corner, on French Market Place, is a bright and colorful new lunch spot called Sarafina's. It was previously home to the creperie Caf de Mello. Now, the menu has big salads topped with grilled fish, chicken or andouille sausage, sandwiches and plenty of desserts, plus an array of coffee drinks.
Jarred Zeringue worked at an architecture firm before opening his first restaurant, Eat New Orleans, along with business partners David Smith and Scott McNair. They took over the space that for 25 years had been the Quarter Scene Restaurant, a locals' place at the quiet end of the French Quarter at Dumaine and Dauphine streets. It opened at the end of April with a menu of home-style New Orleans recipes done with lan. Dishes like Gulf shrimp and grits in wine sauce, fried catfish with white beans and poached eggs over fried green tomatoes are stars on the menu.
The same big windows that made the Quarter Scene such a sunny dining spot remain at Eat New Orleans, but the dining rooms they frame have had a radical dcor overhaul and now sport a clean, modern ambiance and cooling colors. Like the Quarter Scene before it, eat New Orleans has a B.Y.O.B. policy, provides mixers and charges no corkage fee. It is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday and brunch on Sunday.
"It was the location that did it," says Zeringue. "We had talked about opening a restaurant before. But I never dreamed I could open a place in this location, in the Quarter, in a great old building with this much character."
It was also a French Quarter location that cemented the Stansbury's decision to open their Sidebar Caf. They had long eyed the location, which had been Castillo's Mexican restaurant for many years and a succession of short-lived restaurants since, including La Fee Verte and later the Citation Grill. When a neighbor mentioned to them after the storm that the restaurant space was available, they snapped it up without delay.
"We had already thought about it for a long time, so a decision that a normal person would have to think about for awhile we could make right away," says Stansbury.
The restaurant's real estate is truly alluring. The petite dining room is lined with French doors opening to a view of the stately Supreme Court building on one side and on the other the European postcard vista of Exchange Alley, where the restaurant has been hosting crawfish boils and barbecues for its patrons.
Catering to the extended hours of visitors and workers from other restaurants in the French Quarter, Sidebar's kitchen stays open until 2 a.m. every night except Sunday, serving what might be the healthiest fare available in a local restaurant after midnight. There are Napoleons of grilled tuna or salmon and avocado, fish tacos made with strips of mahi mahi on soft corn tortillas and grilled vegetable sandwiches, plus burgers at the other end of the spectrum.
And the chance for a French Quarter location convinced Giovanni Zedda to open his first New Orleans restaurant after the storm. A native of the Italian island Sardinia, Zedda had run a bakery in Tampa, Fla., and was a partner in a number of restaurants there. He moved to New Orleans in 2003 and began managing local restaurants, most recently the Chartres House Caf in the French Quarter. In January, he opened Tiramisu Caf, a tiny, nine-table Italian caf that was formerly the Kosher Creole Kitchen on the first block of Chartres Street. What had been a hybrid Kosher/Middle Eastern/New Orleans-style restaurant now serves dishes like fried calamari, linguini with clams, veal piccata and shrimp Tiramisu -- a savory, creamy and garlic-laden appetizer named for the restaurant, not the dessert.
"The guy never reopened after the storm, he lost everything. So I saw an opportunity, crazy me," Zedda says. "But you got to take a chance in life to go anywhere, otherwise what are you going to do?"
- Tracie Morris Schaefer
- The Sidebar Cafe on Exchange Alley in the French Quarter has been hosting crawfish boils.