New Orleans is a restaurant town. Tourists who come here know that, of course. In fact, restaurant owners say that people often come for the music and leave talking about dinner. Yet one of the things that makes the city’s restaurant obsession distinctive is that it exists at least as much for locals as it does for visitors. There are bistros and neighborhood joints everywhere, it seems, often in places where tourists never tread. You can get a great po’boy or have a wonderful plate of seafood in nearly any neighborhood in the city. These are mostly local restaurants, not the casual dining and fast food chains that define eating out in much of the United States. In an era of increasingly homogenized dining, New Orleans’ restaurant obsession—and the broader culinary culture of which it is a part—seems like an anomaly.
We want to figure out what makes it work.
Based in the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Orleans, we are a team of researchers (1 faculty member and 4 intrepid undergraduates) trying to understand the links between a collection of restaurants, the surrounding neighborhood, and the distinctive culture of New Orleans.
The neighborhood is called Mid-City, a mixed-income, ethnically diverse part of New Orleans full of interesting people and an amazing array of architecture. We are specifically focused on the restaurant row that runs roughly from the Little Tokyo at the corner of Bienville and N. Carrollton down to Juan’s Flying Burrito near the corner of Carrollton and Canal, while taking a little detour down Canal toward Mandina‘s and The Ruby Slipper, in one direction, and toward Café Minh in the other. This takes in nearly two dozen eating establishments…a fascinating collection of dining opportunities and small businesses (if we pushed the geographical limits a bit more, we could bring in several other restaurants, but we only have so much time).
The area has long been characterized by a significant cluster of restaurants and bars. Some have been there for a long time (Mandina’s has been a restaurant since 1932 and the family has had a business in the spot since 1898), while others are very new (Yummy Yummy Chinese Restaurant opened in 2009). Even before the 2005 floods devastated the neighborhood, the restaurants were a diverse bunch, including both old-line Creole Italian restaurants, sushi, French haute cuisine, fast food and a famous purveyor of tamales (Manuel’s, now departed). Many of the old restaurants are still there and they seem to be thriving. There are also new restaurants that reflect the city’s changing demographics, including three Latino restaurants, a Vietnamese restaurant (with a Chinese history), and others.
When the floods cleared, the recovery began and the restaurant cluster seemed to lead the neighborhood in rebuilding. Angelo Brocato’s Ice Cream and Confectionary was one of the first to reopen in the area, in September 2006, 13 months after the storm and 101 years since they first opened in the French Quarter. It seemed like the businesses came back, renovated and reopened even before many of the people in the area came back. There is still a shuttered strip mall, which once housed a Chinese restaurant, a daiquiri shop and a few other businesses, as evidence of the destruction. But there is also much that is new.
This is where we are conducting our research. We are out there interviewing restaurant owners, managers, cooks, waiters and busboys. We want to know their stories and the stories of their businesses. We are researching the history of the area, trying to determine when the cluster developed, what facilitated it, and what sustains it. We are taking pictures, making videos, writing notes and collecting artifacts. This blog will serve to showcase our intermediate findings, our thoughts, questions and insights. We’ll put up a picture or two. Maybe we will make you hungry enough to go out to eat at one of these restaurants (careful, many of them are packed at lunch and dinner already!).
We think that this restaurant cluster is a key part of New Orleans culinary culture. Our results will show how the restaurants are connected to the neighborhood, the city and to what makes this place distinctive. We are working with the Southern Food and Beverage Museum to put together two exhibits (one on-line, the other on-site) in the fall that will showcase our findings. And, of course, we will endeavor to write-up and publish our results. There will be much to say!
Posted by David Beriss