Make Way for the Roaring 2022s
Three classic standbys hope for a big boom and a return to the big dining season.
Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.
There is a lot of pent-up party about to roll into the Crescent City. How are the city’s historical eateries preparing to roar into 2022? For answers, we turned to Katy Casbarian, Lisa Blount and Ti Martin, of Arnaud’s, Antoine’s and Commander’s Palace respectively.
When New Orleans is in full swing, packed with conventions, festivals and partying locals, the big three regularly host thousands of diners between them on any given day. With closures, capacity restrictions and employee shortages, that hasn’t occurred since early spring 2020. Yet all signs today point to a remarkable recovery.
When Arnaud’s reopened in June 2020, co-owner Katy Casbarian saw a new appreciation among locals for her family’s century-plus-old restaurant. “People love to celebrate with us,” she said. “With our many private dining spaces, they were so happy to have the opportunity to safely reconnect with family and friends and continue to mark special occasions at Arnaud’s by dining privately in one of our many unique rooms.
“Even without having an official Mardi Gras 2021, we hosted many float parties for krewes who couldn’t ride, have a traditional ball or observe any of the usual ceremonies,” Casbarian continued. She especially loves to plan and host unique, themed lunches and dinners at Arnaud’s, inviting New Orleanians to don a costume and join the party, something she looks forward to continuing in 2022.
Antoine’s was also a preferred private dining space during the pandemic, but today, Lisa Blount, wife of owner Rick Blount, reports an uptick in requests for large parties in the bustling main dining rooms. “They want to be part of the excitement. They’re lingering longer at tables over favorites like pommes souffles and Pompano Pontchartrain.”
In preparation for the new year, Antoine’s is reviving some classic old cocktails and filling up the wine cellar with celebratory bottles of Champagne. “There are so many parties that couldn’t happen during the pandemic,” Blount said, “we’re booking dates into 2023.”
Yet the specters of inflation and employee shortages heavily overshadow the current business boom. Last fall, all three restaurants were forced to refuse reservations, while rooms in their vast establishments remained empty.
“It’s a very different world we’re living in,” Ti Martin co-owner of Commander’s Palace reflected. “After almost a year of having nights, weekends and holidays to themselves, a lot of service industry folks are thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll do something else,’” she said. As a result, Commander’s is aggressively tackling the employee issue. This past Christmas Eve, the restaurant closed despite it being their fourth biggest annually. “We’re trying to make life more worthwhile for our team.”
Commander’s offers weekly, paid staff training, whimsically dubbed “Aqua Blue U,” which focuses on leadership, team management and other industry-specific themes. Not only do team members earn handsome compensation, but “After Commander’s,” Martin said “you can go off and pursue any career with the skills you have learned here.”
The biggest pandemic wake-up call for Martin came from the diversified new income streams made possible through delivering Commander’s dining experience to homes nationwide. “Although I had been resistant to Goldbelly for a long time, I got religion real quick once orders for gumbo, quail and turtle soup began to flow in.” (Goldbelly is an online gourmet marketplace that facilitates sales for restaurants.) She reports that the wine and cheese Zoom parties, which were a pandemic sensation, will also continue in 2022. “We had over 1,000 people from across the country online during our last event. They love to costume and party New Orleans-style.”
The extent that inflation will impact 2022 remains unknown, while food costs skyrocket and supply limitations continue to plague the industry. Arnaud’s, Antoine’s and Commander’s have all been forced to reduce menu items, while still respecting the demand for luxury dishes, such veal and crab. Despite the challenge, prix fixe menus for bargain seeking diners will also continue in 2022.
From weekly jazz brunches to Mardi Gras madness, New Orleans’ grande dame dining establishments are optimistically looking for 2022 to finally bring in the new roaring 20’s.
Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, “Louisiana Eats!” Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.