The right ambiance invites diners to relax and stay awhile.
Sitting in the dining room at Tony Angello’s Ristorante the other day, it occurred to me that the place was one of a certain type. I was enjoying a multi-course meal with my wife and children, and I noticed that I could hear everyone at our table with clarity, that the meal felt intimate, that I could focus on the flavors, that I could unwind with my family. There’s a reason Tony Angello’s, which opened in 1972, has stood the test of time. “This is the best restaurant in the world, period,” said my 7-year-old son. We all went home happy.
The next evening, we went to a new eating establishment that will remain nameless. The dining room décor was très chic. Old-school hip-hop blasted ironically against the walls as big-bearded whippersnappers toiled clamorously in the adjacent open kitchen. It was the first time we had ever been there. “This is the last time I ever want to come here,” said my 9-year-old daughter.
There’s an art to restaurant ambience, and different ambiences appeal to different tastes. At one extreme is the discotheque or warehouse approach, in which patrons are crowded together in loud, wide-open spaces. Apparently, this environment makes some people feel alive or maybe avant-garde.
New Orleans, like any major city, now has its share of these places. But it is blessed to have its share of more intimate places.
In part, that’s because New Orleans has not confined its dining establishments to commercial areas. It has a great number nestled right within residential neighborhoods, often within structures that once were or could be houses. Along with genuinely hospitable wait staffs and cuisine that is, to say the least, reliable, these places are a big part of what makes our restaurant scene special.
That brings us back to Tony Angello’s. The truth is, if you didn’t know it was there, you might pass by the place, thinking it was just another 1960s-era Lakeview ranch house. Entering from the front porch, you have a strong sense of arriving at someone’s home. The main dining room feels like a living room. A picture of Pope Benedict presides. There are semiprivate dining rooms off the main room. The bar is mellow. The feeling is dignified and unrushed. The waiter might start singing in Italian.
There’s a word for all this: relaxing. It’s an atmosphere that makes you want to linger. You want to order an aperitif, an extra bottle of wine, a dessert, a digestif. And the bill gets longer.
Or take Brigtsen’s in the Riverbend neighborhood. Situated in the middle of a semiresidential block, it occupies a historic cottage. You enter through a sidehall and are smilingly escorted into this dining room or that one, which you may share with just a few other parties. Why on earth would you rush out of that pleasant Victorian atmosphere? Why wouldn’t you fritter away a whole evening in this home away from home?
Others fit the same profile. Just a few blocks from Brigtsen’s, at Mat and Naddie’s, you might get a room to yourself or space on the deck. Again, you might dawdle and run up a bill.
Speaking of decks, the dining room at Café Degas on Esplanade is all deck, making it the only restaurant that contains the trunk of an oak tree; only a small portion of the little old house is dedicated to a bar. As icing on the cake, the place has perhaps the most convincingly French vibe of any restaurant in New Orleans. But can you linger at Café Degas? I remember spending four and a half hours there once.
Tucked away on Soniat Street in a residential part of Uptown is Gautreau’s: classy but warmly welcoming. The private room upstairs is an inner circle within Gautreau’s sphere of seclusion.
In an emphatically different vein, there’s Jack Dempsey’s in Bywater. From the looks of it, the building used to be a double shotgun of utilitarian construction. As everyone knows, the neighborhood is popular among transplants, but Jack Dempsey’s remains a sanctuary of local authenticity. The staff is old-fashioned and no-nonsense. The clientele spans the color divide but is unified in being heavily “New Awlins.” It feels good to be at home.