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One by one, city's restaurants reopen

With Katrina's devastation still widely evident, the Big Easy's eateries are back in business, well ahead of schedule.

October 23, 2005|Phil Vettel | Chicago Tribune

THE menus are limited. There aren't enough waiters. And those places not using paper plates are hiring dishwashers at $10 an hour or more.

But the restaurants of New Orleans are coming back.

Though the devastation wrought in August by Hurricane Katrina is still apparent, restaurants are popping up in the French Quarter and central business district -- the areas that escaped the worst of the hurricane and attendant flooding -- in defiance of those who predicted that months would pass before anything of the sort could happen.

Indeed, at Bacco and Red Fish Grill, two restaurants owned by the Ralph Brennan Group, the paper and plastic have been packed away. The restaurants started using their regular dishes and glassware Oct. 18.

That's how progress is measured by New Orleans' restaurants: baby steps.

"We're not taking it day by day; we're taking it shift by shift," says Charlee Williamson, the Brennan group's executive vice president.

To be sure, some of the city's most famous restaurants -- Commander's Palace, Brigtsen's, Emeril's and Bayonaare -- are still closed. Only Bayona's owner is talking about reopening before 2006. On a list of 200 city restaurants approved for reopening by local health officials (posted last week on the restaurant association's website,, few famous names appeared. But, beginning Oct. 19, it was again possible to enjoy coffee and beignets at Cafe Du Monde, the open-air cafe adjacent to Jackson Square that, despite its short menu, is one of the city's iconic eating spots.

Also open are nearby Cafe Beignet, Herbsaint, Cuvee, Restaurant August and the New Orleans Grill inside the Windsor Court hotel.

"I'm very, very encouraged," says Laurie Claverie of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp., whose website,, maintains a list of restaurants, music venues, tours and other attractions open for business.

"The people [who] are coming back are pioneers, doing what they can," says Claverie, who compiles and updates her list largely by walking around town. "But people are going and supporting them because they're open, and they don't care if they're eating off paper plates."

Donald Link, the chef and owner of Herbsaint, was so eager to return to his business that he says he created "bogus passes" to get past the security checkpoints.

Herbsaint's menu was a bit shorter than usual, and some ingredients, such as farm-raised rabbits, were unobtainable. "But every night it's been like a party," says Link, whose staff now numbers 16. (The pre-Katrina number was 40.) "People thank me every night; they think it's incredible that we're open. And it is incredible; it's some sort of miracle that we've managed to pull this off."

At the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, the job description for management has undergone some adjustment -- a reflection of the fact that Brennan retained 85% of its management workers but only 10% of its hourly employees, many of whom lived in the hardest-hit parts of town. Out of 350 employees, the restaurant group has 95 back. So upper-level managers at Red Fish Grill or Bacco -- until this week, the restaurants used a common menu for simplicity's sake -- are waiting tables, tending bar and cooking.

The biggest issue facing New Orleans restaurants is the city's shallow labor pool. Brennan says his company is working with local real estate agents to find housing for returning workers and that wage rates have gone up 25% for hourly workers.

"A lot of the people who were evacuated filled crucial needs," says Val Sevin, a seafood wholesaler with Tuna Fresh Inc., which has moved its operations to Baton Rouge, La. "A lot of places are still boarded up; that's the reality of the deal. We've got one vibrant part of the city, but we're still severely hampered by a lack of labor and lack of businesses. It's gonna take some time." But for now at least, and much sooner than expected, there is hope.

Phil Vettel is restaurant critic for the Tribune.

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