Out of the Ashes and Into the Frying Pan

Post-Katrina, Crescent City dining has undergone an exciting renaissance.
Cheryl Gerber
The Ruby Slipper in the Marigny is just one of the many places to now grab breakfast in New Orleans.

Last month, I discussed the demise of various dining institutions as a result of the Katrina disaster. The losses included places like Bruning’s, Christian’s and Restaurant Mandich.

But in the months immediately after the disaster, us locals took a break from cleaning up the ruins of our lives and the bleak rows of abandoned refrigerators to find an open restaurant. We ate and drank – drank a lot. The restaurants and their customers had a particularly symbiotic relationship in those days. And out of the ashes, a lot of new life has emerged in the local restaurant field.

New empires were born. Adolfo Garcia opened Ancora, High Hat Café and Primitivo. John Besh started an internationally flavored empire, opening places like Borgne, Domenica, Johnny Sanchez, Luke and Shaya.

Hotel restaurants got better. On a Besh-related note, the old hotel restaurant stigma of mediocrity is all but dead. Drago’s, Domenica, Borgne, Luke and Restaurant R’evolution are all popular, and all located in hotels.

We started eating a lot of breakfast. If the proliferation of Ruby Slipper locations alone is any indication, New Orleans is eating a lot more breakfast nowadays. Another Broken Egg has been expanding its reach as well. Then there are the little guys, with evocative names like Wakin’ Bakin’.

We started eating a bunch of hamburgers and hot dogs. New super-charged hamburger places started popping up, including Atomic Burger, Company Burger and the Backyard. Dat Dog supplied the hot dogs.

The fine-dining footprint expanded. Neighborhoods not previously known for fine dining options suddenly got them. They include Bywater, Central City and parts of Freret Street.

Food trucks rolled in. This new form of fast food takes the drive up to you, rather than the other way around. The trucks frequent various underserved office buildings and construction. On the downside, I’ve seen them parked in passenger zones, on neutral grounds and even in the right-hand traffic lane/bike lane during rush hour. But food trucks are suddenly a big deal in New Orleans, and some of them are serving sophisticated chow.

Pho made a splash. There were great pho shops before Katrina – Pho Tau Bay comes to mind — but there weren’t that many of them, and those that existed were on the margin. Nowadays, Vietnamese is well into the mainstream with venues like Magasin Uptown and in the CBD and a passel of places in Mid-City, including the newer MoPho on City Park Avenue and Namese on Carrollton at Tulane.

There was a Mexican revolution. For a while there, it seemed like a new Mexican place was opening every month. Given its proximity to Mexico, New Orleans had always been surprisingly underserved in this department. A friend from Texas used to always complain about this. But with the expansion of the El Gato Negro, Felipe’s and Juan’s Flying Burrito, and the opening of more haute places like La Casita and Johnny Sanchez, New Orleans is moving adelante.

Brennan’s died and went to Ralph Brennan. Brennan’s had felt for years like it was coasting. This old Crescent City institution needed a makeover, and got one. 

Peter Reichard is a native New Orleanian who has written about the life and times of the city for more than 20 years, including as a former newspaper editor and business journalist.