Shadows

All that is left of Popeyes at Canal and Carrollton.

Our restaurant row is haunted by the shadows of restaurants that no longer exist.  Of course, there are businesses that have failed, just as businesses do anywhere. There are retirements, sales and other transformations.  But here there is also before and after the floods, pre and post K.  After hurricane Katrina, when the federal levees failed, the neighborhood stewed in the flood waters for weeks.  There were heroic efforts by restaurateurs to save their businesses, but not everyone succeeded.  Lack of housing, employees, money or even willing family led some to choose not to rebuild.

One part of our project is focused on finding out what happened. Some restaurants have been replaced — El Renconcito in the place of Pho Tau Bay, or Cafe Minh where Michael’s Mid-City Grill once stood, Little Tokyo in the space occupied by the ill-fated but delicious Chateaubriand.

Others have left empty spaces in the neighborhood.  On one corner of Canal and Carrollton there now stands an overgrown lot where a Popeye’s once stood.   The building next door used to be a sushi restaurant with an affordable lunchtime buffet.  It now houses a furniture store.

The church that was Christian's.

The church that was Christian's.

One of the most lamented losses is Christian’s, a gourmet Creole bistro housed in a church, on the corner of  Iberville and North Scott streets.  One of the founders of Christian’s was Christian Ansel, a member of the same family that has run Galatoire’s in the French Quarter for a century.   Chef Roland Huet made the kitchen famous.  The restaurant was known for the unusual setting and for wonderful food, including sublime cold smoked soft shell crabs.  Rumors abound concerning the possible return of the restaurant; but nothing seems to be happening on the site…except that it was restored and used as a church (of all things) for a while since Katrina.  I would like to know the fate of Chef Michel Foucqueteau, a creative French cook who showed me a delicious way to make shrimp (not personally – I just watched him at a cooking demonstration at the Crescent City Farmer’s Market until I learned the recipe).  If you know where he is, let us know.  We’d love any artifacts from Christian’s as well.

Empty strip mall, 5 years after the floods.

And then there is this.  An entire strip mall sitting empty.  There used to be a Chinese restaurant here, as well as a daiquiri shop (like ’em or not, these places are popular hang outs for New Orleanians) and a smoothie stand.  Now, just an entire city block of decay.  A large pool of darkness in an area that otherwise sparkles with light and life.  Know anything about this place?

In fact, we would welcome any comments, insights, memories or artifacts you have about any of the missing restaurants in the area.  Leave a comment here or contact us through the contact tab above.

Eating Your Feelings

When I told a friend about the restaurants that would be the focus of our project, she lit up at the mention of Mandina’s.  This is where her family has always gone immediately following the funeral of a relative.  In fact, she told me, members of her family have become so accustomed to the ritual of post-funeral dining, that many of them now make a point to eat at Mandina’s after any funeral – family or otherwise.  Eating one’s way through a difficult time seems to be characteristic of many New Orleanians – evidenced in the aftermath of the 2005 storms, when local papers and the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization posted almost daily updates on the projected reopening dates of the beloved Restaurant Row ; as if residents couldn’t wait to eat away troubled thoughts at Brocato’s or Venezia and be assured that all would be well  because the restaurants were back.

Now, most of them are back and we are trying to establish what it is about them specifically that has so endeared them to the community.  Why are these businesses flourishing and in such concentration?  “Zoning,” was the response  David Beriss got from a restaurant affiliate to this question – an answer a bit deflating for a few moments for us, who are hoping for something more curious and charming than zoning to explain the vibrant area.  I gave this some thought, deciding that location in the row alone was not a guarantee of success for a food establishment.  Our research team is now collecting stories of the early years of business for the restaurants as told by owners, employees, and customers.  So far I am most impressed by the adaptivity of the establishments.  One restaurateur told me she had to change her menu completely three times within the first months of opening earlier this year.  She and her patrons are still trying to agree on what her restaurant should serve.  Anthony of Venezia said that his restaurant used to be open till all hours for pitchers of beer and pizza.  At that time they were drawing in a student crowd.  Now he said they mostly do large parties and family gatherings.  Maybe I should recommend my friend check out Venezia as another great after-death meal spot.

Welcome to the Restaurant Row Recovery Project

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