Best of Dining
Gulf Coast Select Oysters at Seaworthy
marianna massey, assistant scott williams
Chef of the Year
Native son Mike Gulotta seems to making a habit of surprising people. Zigging when a zag is anticipated by everyone else.
Early on in a chef’s career, the expected path would be to rise to the top of the kitchen staff of a famous establishment and then settle in to mentor and create, which is the way so many of our chefs work.
Not everyone can be a Marquee Chef, and while Gulotta had “Going Places” written all over his career as a major cooking force in a star-power New Orleans restaurant, that just wasn’t what he had in mind.
Gulotta’s stint climbing up the trellis of the John Besh organization even had the Maestro paying particular attention to what this young man was turning out. Gulotta’s talent and let’s-dazzle attitude won him a coveted under-the-wing spot and a secure future in the business he loved.
Part of his reputation is that he has always been a major proponent of the agricultural and aquacultural products from this area. There is no question that fresh products available here are in Gulotta’s wheelhouse and on his plates.
Bottom left, Gulf Shrimp in Fresh Turmeric Curry
After six years, Gulotta left the Besh group to open his own establishment in a part of town not previously renowned for fine-dining restaurants, City Park. To further add to the gear-jamming style of his career, Gulotta opened a Vietnamese-directional casual dining emporium, MoPho, and his Creole roots, ingrained since childhood and groomed at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, play a key role. Did not see the Vietnamese turn coming, did you?
Neither did anyone else with the possible exception of his brother, Jeff, who plays a key role in MoPho’s front of house operations.
The project has drawn a lot of national and international accolades and attention, but most treasured is the support of the hometown crowd.
“New Orleanians are very knowledgeable diners. Many of our clientele are terrific home chefs in their own right,” Gulotta notes. “And to have them come into our place multiple times, ordering all over the menu, gives us an amazing feeling. Affirming our original plan, which has always been a plan-in-motion, but more importantly recognizing our soul, is the best.”
It also appears that New Orleans has “elected” an unofficial ambassador of our city, our cuisines, and our lifestyle. Gulotta has been named by Bon Appetit Magazine as a Best New Restaurant; a Star Chefs Rising Stars Award Chef; MoPho was previously named by this publication as one of the Best New Restaurants; Food & Wine Magazine’s Best New Chef; and now New Orleans Magazine’s Chef of the Year.
Gulotta is no stranger to airports. Besides traveling all over the U.S., he has appeared at guest gigs in Spielwig, Germany; Brooklyn, New York; and Liguria, Italy, among many others.
He has joined the team at Trèo Restaurant and opened TANA, devoted to the further development and marriage of New Orleans’ Italian flavors and this area’s Creole heritage. The name is what the Gulotta family calls their grandmother.
In a very short while, MayPop will be in operation (plans call for the restaurant to open any moment now), located in the South Market Street Development, in the space formerly occupied by Ursa Major.
MayPop is another name for a variety of passionflowers.
Just when you have chef Michael Gulotta pigeonholed, he flies away and does something with a different culture in a completely different way in a different place. What holds true is that once the dining public finds out where he is, they now know to follow.
– Tim McNally
MayPop, 611 O’Keefe Ave., number forthcoming /// MoPho, 514 City Park Ave., 482-6845, MoPhoNola.com /// Trèo & TANA, 3835 Tulane Ave., 304-4878, TreoNola.com
Restaurant of the Year
Brennan’s is an icon in the New Orleans dining scene. It may not have quite as many years as Antoine’s, Tujague’s, Galatoire’s or Arnaud’s, but since opening in 1946, it has been one of the stalwarts of elegant Creole dining in general, and in the French Quarter in particular. Brennan’s is as much a part of the fabric of the French Quarter as any establishment, and while all restaurants have their ups and downs, Brennan’s is decidedly on the “up” end of the spectrum these days.
Brennan’s was first opened by Owen Brennan on Bourbon Street, and in the mid-1950s moved to its current location at 417 Royal St. The building, which dates from 1795, has always been beautiful, but when current owners Ralph Brennan and Terry White purchased it in 2013, they began a renovation that, while lengthy and expensive, brought the space to new heights.
The work didn’t change the essential character of the place – the pink stucco façade remains and the bones of the original structure are intact. Indeed, the point of the renovation was to reveal some of the glorious details that had been hidden, whether by necessity or choice, through the past several decades. Whether it’s the beautifully restored rooms on the second floor, or the newly refreshed dining rooms, bar and patio downstairs, every part of the public areas was improved.
Top left, New Orleans BBQ Lobster Bottom right, Eggs Hussarde
Behind the scenes, too, the restaurant got a makeover. While work done in the kitchen and other production areas was important, perhaps the most critical addition was the naming of Slade Rushing as executive chef. The move was brilliant and is emblematic of the approach Brennan and White have taken. Rushing is a classically trained, experienced chef who has worked in fine-dining restaurants in New York and New Orleans. He is from Mississippi, and his cooking has been grounded in the flavors of the region, including Creole.
But at the same time he’s an inventive and imaginative cook, able to use modern techniques to re-work traditional dishes with flair. The classics we all remember from the Brennan’s of years past, such as turtle soup, eggs Hussarde and Gulf fish amandine are still on the menu and essentially unchanged.
Rushing has also updated a few
Brennan’s recipes that were not as featured in recent years. These include soft shell crab Chartres: crabs fried in an almond-tempura batter and served with coffee-cured Canadian bacon, poached eggs and a caper-dill hollandaise; and poisson blange: baked Gulf fish with butter poached crab, oysters and shrimp, served with a fennel-potato purée and an herbsaint nage.
Chef Rushing’s influence can certainly be seen in his updates to those classics, and also in dishes he brought to the restaurant, such as oysters roasted in the shell with smoked chili butter and a crust of Manchego cheese, or his take on blue crab remoulade with cucumber gelée, preserved lemon and mustard oil.
Service has, since Katrina, been an issue for some restaurants in New Orleans. It is excellent at Brennan’s. From bussers to servers, the folks behind the bar and in the front of the house, the staff at Brennan’s are affable, knowledgeable and attentive without being intrusive; they exemplify what fine dining service in New Orleans should be. Brennan’s also has an excellent wine list and cocktail program, including pitch-perfect renditions of traditional drinks as well as more modern originals.
Brennan’s renaissance has been one of the best stories in New Orleans in recent memory, and at this moment it’s a restaurant at the top of its game. That’s why we’re proud to name Brennan’s Restaurant of the Year for 2016.
- Robert Peyton
Brennan’s /// 417 Royal St. /// 525-9711 /// BrennansNewOrleans.com
Restauranteur of the Year
No chef has burst out of New Orleans with more cultural force then Emeril Lagasse. His rise helped promulgate chef-dom as not just a legitimate career path but an iconoclastic one; in his wake chefs would become rock stars, and the industry has never been the same.
But we know all this, right? So why is he Restauranteur of this Year? Firstly, through his tireless work with the Emeril Lagasse Foundation, he has given over $7 million to children’s education programs both locally and nationwide. Places close to home include NOCCA, Liberty’s Kitchen and Café Reconcile. Then there’s Meril, which opened its doors in October. At a recent visit there, a group of excited NOCCA culinary students were gathered and working on plans for the upcoming blow-out gala Carnival du Vin, while the kitchen was staffed with former students of Liberty’s Kitchen and Café Reconcile. “I’m not doing this because I’m looking for awards or recognition,” Emeril says. “I’m doing it because I care about these kids. They need to have mentors – not necessarily me, but any chef they work for.”
Meril is named for Emeril’s daughter (her drawings are part of the décor – see if you can find them) and show that Emeril’s investment in this project isn’t just professional but deeply personal. The kitchen is framed like a portrait in motion showcasing its bustle and flow – a detail that Emeril helped to popularize. For the menu, Emeril draws on experience gleaned during the filming of his recent Amazon series “Eat the World.” The inspiration is global and focuses on authentic dishes rather than fusion-type mashups, with artfully composed small plates intended to be shared. One of the tastiest is the Five-Spice Pork Ribs with their caramelized, fall-of-the-bone tenderness. Lagasse, a longtime resident of the Warehouse District, helped to pioneer the neighborhood 27 years ago with his flagship restaurant. (“They didn’t even have streetlights down here back then,” he says.) Now it’s one of the hottest places in town, and Meril is an elegant expression of how he has come full circle. As with his culinary wards that have graduated into successful careers, Lagasse now has the joy of watching the seeds he planted so long ago bear fruit.
- Jay Forman
EmerilsRestaurants.com /// Emeril’s Delmonico, 1300 St. Charles Ave., 525-4937 /// Emeril’s New Orleans, 800 Tchoupitoulas St., 528-9393 /// NOLA, 534 St. Louis St., 522-6652 /// Meril, 424 Girod St., 526-374
As we celebrate Tujague’s, we might do well to remember how close we came to losing it. In 2013, the fate of New Orleans’s second-oldest restaurant seemed sealed. Following the unexpected death of co-owner Stephen Latter, who had stewarded the establishment since 1982, his brother was set on selling out to a developer who intended to close it down. But a last-ditch effort, sparked through a conversation with local food personality Poppy Tooker and Stephen’s son Mark, generated such a groundswell of support that the brother agreed to lease the business back to Mark. Tujague’s, an irreplaceable piece of the fabric of New Orleans, was saved.
But the story doesn’t end there. Mark Latter didn’t just carry on business as usual, he doubled down. A long-overdue remodeling transformed the main dining room. Out went the clutter and paneling, and in came the mirrors and light. The restrooms were overhauled, and the video poker machines got jettisoned to make room for a vastly improved wine cellar. (“Our list went from about 28 bottles with stuff like Kendell Jackson to the hundreds we offer now,” Latter says.) But his efforts didn’t stop there. The restrictive table d’hôtel menu was replaced with – gasp – à la carte options, though legacy dishes like the beef brisket were preserved, and following a quick succession of chefs Guy Sockrider, formerly of Tomas Bistro, settled into the role of Executive Chef.
Chicken Bonne Femme
Not-to-miss dishes include chicken bonne femme – not formally on the menu, but just ask your server – a mélange of crisp pan-fried chicken, thin slices of potatoes and the signature garlicy persillade. The residual heat partially cooks the persillade, releasing an intoxicating aroma. Other signature dishes include the brisket: succulent cubes of salty boiled beef that can be raked apart with a fork and dragged through the piquant red horseradish sauce.
On firm footing now with a new chef, committed ownership and revamped environs, Tujague’s looks ready to carry its tradition into the future. “It is an honor to own such a historic restaurant,” Latter says. “I’ve worked in a lot of other places and things are definitely different here.” Among its many unique quirks, Tujague’s offers service on both Thanksgiving and Christmas, making it a local holiday dining tradition.
- Jay Forman
Tujague’s /// 823 Decatur St. /// 525-8676 /// TajaguesRestaurant.com
Chocolatier of the Year
You might not know it, but New Orleans now has a bean-to-bar chocolate maker. Acalli Chocolate is a labor of love by owner Carol Morse, whose interest in the craft was kindled in part by her journeys through Guatemala and Peru with her archeologist husband.
“A few years back I was working for a micro-finance nonprofit and went to visit him in Guatemala. I met some cacao growers and this just seemed like a great way to bring together complementary interests that I’d had for a long time,” Morse says.
Assorted Chocolate Bars
Equal parts MacGyver – the roasting box is a retro-fitted rotisserie oven with a drum for holding the beans – and specialty gear – like the stainless and natural stone conching unit – her operation is a sophisticated chocolate factory in miniature tucked into a handful of tidy rooms in a Gretna commissary. The cacao beans, sourced from a farmers’ cooperative in Peru, are roasted, cracked, winnowed and then mixed for three days to produce the chocolate bars presented on shelves in coffee shops and groceries around town.
With cacao percentages ranging from 65 percent in the dark milk chocolate to an intense 81 percent, the bars are a treat for lovers of dark chocolate. In addition, Morse has begun phasing in the use of Louisiana sugar sourced from 3 Brothers Farm. Buy them online or check out the list of purveyors on her website AcalliChocolate.com.
- Jay Forman
Acalli Chocolate /// AcalliChocolate.com
Rebirth of the Year
Readers of a certain age will recall the Pontchartrain Hotel in its heyday. With its clubby Bayou Bar and fine-dining jewel the Caribbean Room, the hotel was a set-piece on the social scene. The children of readers of a certain age might scratch their heads, however; after the Caribbean Room closed in the mid-1990s and the property languished, this former grande dame seemed destined to join the ranks of lost New Orleans treasures.
But then a funny thing happened. A fellow named Cooper Manning become the local face of AJ Capital in a $10 million push to restore the hotel to its former grandeur. Manning tapped another guy by the name of John Besh to oversee food service operations. “Cooper grew up near the hotel – the Caribbean Room in particular held a lot of memories for him,” Besh says. “He’s not alone. People here have a lot of really strong memories about this place.”
Top, Lamb Chops, Citrus Crepinette, Sweet Potatoes Bottom left, Mile High Pie
The result isn’t a facelift but a full-on revelation. The Pontchartrain roared back to life with everything it once had and more – like Hot Tin, the rooftop bar that became an overnight hit. The Silver Whistle’s blueberry muffins await, the woodsy warren of the Bayou Bar beckons and the granny-chic feel of the Caribbean Room’s parlor is now counter-pointed with a statement portrait of Lil Wayne by local artist Ashley Longshore. Like the Dude’s carpet from The Big Lebowski, that portrait really ties the room together.
Besh tapped Chris Lusk, formerly of R’evolution, to be Executive Chef of the Caribbean Room. Lusk retains a clutch of the restaurant’s classic dishes, such as crab Remick, but shows contemporary takes on plenty of new items. It is a fine line. “Half our clientele has vivid memories of a dish the way that it was and for the other half it is brand new,” Besh says. “The key is to evolve while respecting guests’ memories and feedback.” Case in point – the Mile High Pie. The first reboot, arranged in a cylindrical tower, caused a flurry of blowback. The classic wedge is back in action, upgraded with quality ice cream, yet still finished tableside with chocolate sauce poured from a silver pitcher. Like the Billy Reid loaner jackets for men, sometimes classics become the new style.
- Jay Forman
Caribbean Room /// 2031 St. Charles Ave. (in the Pontchartrain Hotel) /// 323-1500 /// TheCaribbeanRoom.com
Concept of the Year
If you’ve recently been speeding down Tchopitoulas Street, illegally passing trucks, you might have noticed an odd sight tucked away a half-block down the light industrial corridor of Third Street – the blaze of crisscrossed string lights that heralds good cheer. Pull around the corner to enter the oasis of Tchoup Yard, the gathering spot and brainchild of F&M Patio Bar owner Trevor Palmer.
With its expanse of crushed gravel punctuated by food trucks, picnic tables and beckoning outdoor bar, this is Uptown’s answer to Bacchanal – an indoor/outdoor watering hole with a more collegiate vibe. Tchoup Yard’s Concept of the Year award springs from the clever accommodation of rotating food trucks, which function as plug-and-play dining options. Recent trucks included Cleaver & Co., serving pimento cheeseburgers and pulled pork tacos. Bar options include a frozen Bushwhacker, a broad range of specialty beers, wines and more. As of press time, there was no pool table to dance on, but look for an indoor expansion phase going into next year.
- Jay Forman
Tchoup Yard /// 405 Third St. /// 895-6747
Little Korea BBQ
Korean Restaurant of the Year
Korean food is vibrant and bold; flavors of chile, garlic and fermented products predominate, but there are subtle tastes as well. When Joyce Park relocated her family’s restaurant from a building that formerly housed a fast-food restaurant to its current location, she not only expanded the seating available, but also added the table-top, charcoal grills that are a hallmark of Korean cuisine.
Spicy Oxtail Stew: Vegetable Dolsot Bibimbap, ADD BulGoGi served with various Banchan (pickled/fermented accoutrements)
The grills at Little Korea BBQ are a marvel. There’s nothing to compare to the taste of food cooked over real charcoal, and at Little Korea BBQ, diners can cook marinated, thinly sliced pork and beef themselves. The banchan, or small dishes that accompany a Korean meal, are also outstanding, as are the soups and noodle dishes.
Dining with friends around a real charcoal grill is a wonderful experience, and it’s just one of the reasons we’re happy to name Little Korea BBQ our Korean restaurant of the year.
- Robert Peyton
Little Korea BBQ /// 2240 Magazine St. /// 821-5006 /// LittleKoreaBBQ.flavorplate.com
New Orleans Cake Café & Bakery
Bakery & Beyond of the Year
After a successful career in the music industry, Steve Himelfarb realized that he was as passionate about food as music. He started selling cakes door to door, and about a year before Katrina, opened a shop in the French Quarter.
He came back after a brief exile and ultimately signed a lease for the space formerly occupied by La Spiga at 2440 Chartres St. on Aug. 29, 2007; he opened New Orleans Cake Café & Bakery a couple of weeks later.
The place is a classic neighborhood restaurant. Himelfarb knows a lot of the customers by name, and while it’s become popular enough to draw a sizable tourist crowd, he and his staff (including his wife, Becky, who runs the front of house) make sure to take care of regulars. “It’s about building a community,” he told me, and that’s clearly the case.
The place wouldn’t be successful, of course, if Himelfarb and his staff didn’t turn out fantastic baked goods and delicious savory items for breakfast, brunch and lunch. For all of these reasons, we’re happy to honor New Orleans Cake Café & Bakery as Bakery & Beyond for 2016.
- Robert Peyton
New Orleans Cake Café & Bakery /// 2440 Chartres St. /// 943-0010 /// NolaCakes.com
Mixologist of the Year
There are not many endeavors in life where balance is so important and necessary as in the hospitality industry.
Paul Gustings has been “exceeding expectations” for a long time. Whether “behind the stick” at Broussard’s Empire Bar in the heart of the French Quarter, or serving adult beverages at a festival, Gustings takes immense pride in providing what the client wishes.
Gustings went into the business for the same reason a lot of people get into their life’s work: He needed money and a bartender position was available. But then came the happy revelation that he liked the work. So he focused on doing the education and on what the customers wanted, even when it wasn’t authentic or historically correct.
“It isn’t my place to tell someone that what they like is wrong, or even could be better, “Gustings says. “If they ask, I’m happy to suggest and I’m happiest when creating drinks that originated in New Orleans.”
Gustings makes a proper Sazerac, both classic way with absinthe and cognac, and the more modern iteration using the core ingredients of rye and Herbsaint. He has discovered a shortcut to the technique for a proper Ramos Gin Fizz, which takes nothing away from the recipe except preparation time. And he makes a terrific Roffignac, Grasshopper, Pimm’s Cup, French 75 and Vieux Carrè.
He has been a full participant in the craft cocktail movement, even making many of his own elixirs and syrups to insure proper quality. And since so many of his clients are also into their own fully-stocked bars at their homes, he’s always pleased to share recipes or techniques.
Gustings put in many years at Tujague’s and at Napoleon House, and he has reached new levels of excellence at Broussard’s. The surroundings and the clientele suit him. His goal of balance is achieved.
- Tim McNally
Broussard’s Empire Bar /// 819 Conti St. /// 581-3866 /// Broussards.com
The Company Burger
Burger of the Year
Adam Biderman upped the local burger game when he opened The Company Burger on Freret Street back in 2011, which was an immediate hit. Then in ’15, Biderman opened his second location in the Paramount, establishing a new position in the booming South Market District. Both sell drinks, but the Uptown restaurant is popular with families and college kids, while the downtown location draws the professional and after-work crowd thanks in part to its terrific bar. Yet, the common thread is the burgers, ground daily from a blend of
The Company Burger with Onion Rings
Creekstone Farms chuck and brisket seasoned simply with salt. Patties go atop griddled buns baked fresh daily and the “Mayo Bar” offers a panoply of ways for you to customize your order. So whether you crave a Steen’s malted vanilla milkshake or a Yuengling lager on tap to accompany your double-stack with bread and butter pickles, red onions and American cheese, Biderman has you covered.
- Jay Forman
The Company Burger /// 4600 Freret St. /// 267-0320 /// 611 O’Keefe Ave. /// C7, 309-9422 /// TheCompanyBurger.com
Seafood Restaurant of the Year
The ability of New Orleans to serve great seafood is beyond discussion. So to come into a town like this one, that not only knows seafood itself but also delivers incredible preparations, you have to be very brave – or very local yourself. The investors, Alex and Miles Pincus,, are from New Orleans. They come by their seafood culinary chops through heritage and proximity. While Seaworthy (located in the Ace hotel) bills itself as an oyster bar, it isn’t one that we’ve seen before. Oysters from the Gulf are only the beginning. Murder
Grand Banks Lobster Roll with French Fries
Point, Malpeque, Kumamoto, Wellfleet, Blue Point and other oysters raised off the sea floor are in evidence. The seafood itself is the freshest, again, from many other points of origin. Chef Dan Causegrove has been preparing excellent dishes in this town for years. Between the investors and the chef, we have a tacit promise that good things from the sea will continue to flow.
- Tim McNally
Seaworthy /// 630 Carondelet St. (inside Ace Hotel) /// 930-3071 /// SeaworthyNola.com
Italian Restaurant of the Year
There are very few activities so rewarding and enjoyable as watching a talented person ply their craft with an obvious joy at a high level of passion. Since 1991, that’s exactly what New Orleans has witnessed in the person of Duke LoCicero at his Café Giovanni. “When we opened, this was a pretty rough neighborhood, the 100 block of Decatur. The idea of an upscale Italian cuisine establishment among all the bars devoted to sailors who just arrived at the port wasn’t exactly the recipe for success.” But it was the classic Northern and
Chef Duke's Meatballs & Spaghetti
Southern Italian recipes, with a touch of Creole influence, that brought long lines of food lovers and visitors. Then, a year down the road, came professional opera performers. Italian arias and creative, modern Italian dishes proved an irresistible combination. Today, chef Duke watches over the restaurant with the same devotion that he used when he speaks out about protecting the French Quarter. Meanwhile his son, Nick, is mastering the kitchen, providing hope that the menus and the music will continue.
– Tim McNally
Café Giovanni /// 117 Decatur St. /// 529-2154 /// CafeGiovanni.com
Barbecue Restaurant of the Year
The “truism” is that New Orleans isn’t a good barbecue town. It is best not to believe that, and don’t even mention it around Neil McClure, who’s turning out some of the best barbecue available anywhere in America and drawing tremendous crowds at his eponymous barbecue stand within NOLA Brewing Company. “I like the Texas style of slowly cooking meat all night long with whole pieces of firewood,” McClure says, “but I can see all sides of the eternal barbecue debate, so I offer sauces to define a style – Midwest, East Coast
All Meats All Sides Platter
mustard-based, Texas Red and Kansas City.” McClure’s was located Uptown on Magazine Street, but when the offer came to bunk in at the NOLA Brewing facility, well, it isn’t often something comes along that just feels so right. Craft beer and barbecue, mais ya’. New Orleans not a barbecue town? Bite your brisket.
– Tim McNally
McClure’s Barbecue /// 3001 Tchoupitoulas St. /// 301-2367 /// McCluresBarbecue.com
State of the Market
By Jay Forman, Tim McNally & Robert Peyton
From its very founding 300 years ago, New Orleans has been a dining, drinking and good-time town. It has welcomed people from all over the world who knew the kind of town it was: a port city, with ships from everywhere docking, unloading, loading and then heading down the river from which they just came up.
With all the freight movement activities, there was time to carouse, put feet on dry land and spend some of that hard-earned pay on fine food, decent wines and spirits, as well as enjoy some companionship that was for sale in the area.
While we cannot attest to the quality of the companionship, we can attest to New Orleans gaining a reputation as a fine-dining destination.
Tim believes that lately, some of New Orleans directions have come under question:
With all the new restaurants opening, of so many different types, is the Classic New Orleans Dining Experience about to be torn asunder?
Can New Orleans successfully sustain and assimilate the incredible expansion of the numbers of restaurants that have opened over the past 10 years, with many more yet to join the fray?
Can the New Orleans style of dining – slower than in most other places in the America, more leisurely, with staff that understands and respects those traditions – remain as it has been given the high number of staff who aren’t from New Orleans and have no background in this style of service?
Will we experience a change in New Orleans dining because the clientele no longer desires to spend time over a grand meal with multiple courses?
While every meal cannot be a Grand Dining Event, at least every meal enjoyed at one of this community’s dining emporiums can be a relaxing, pleasurable experience. And yet, there seems to be the first sounds of change in the New Orleans style of dining. Restaurants, at least lately, are louder, more frenzied, not as personal and happy to rush patrons just a bit more than was previously done.
That may be an unfair observation – and we sincerely hope it is.
What New Orleans has done for dining and cuisine in America is historic and unparalleled. It not something we should lose – ever.
Jay says that restaurateurs around town share a lot of similar concerns these days. The concerns are not about sexy things, like where to store the liquid nitrogen for that made-to-order ice cream bar, but – sorry – more practical things.
One major issue is that the ongoing and unprecedented restaurant boom is putting severe pressure on the labor pool. Staffing leads the list of fears we hear operators talk about most often. Rent has also gone up significantly around town, making it harder for employees to afford the same standard of living that they could have even just five years ago. Some people think that raising the minimum wage is an answer to this, but tell that to a restaurateur and watch their head explode. Profit margins for a successful restaurant are slim – if you make 10 percent you are doing well – and labor makes up the largest percentage of their operating expenses; usually 30-40 percent of their gross revenue. People often don’t realize that other expenses, like payroll taxes and unemployment insurance, are pegged to a restaurant’s gross payroll, so a $1 per hour raise actually translates into a cost of about $1.30 more per hour for the business owner. So if gross payroll jumps 15 percent, you’re underwater and the business fails. The only real option is to raise prices, but that’s a tough sell – literally. Most restaurateurs want to pay their employees more, but they simply cannot afford to give the regulatory requirements of the traditional model. Unless an increased minimum wage is offset by some kind of tax break, the numbers simply don’t add up.
Robert has been hearing from restaurateurs for the last several years that the city can’t support the current number of restaurants. The logic adds up; as Jay notes, rents are higher both for commercial and residential properties, and our population, while larger than the first few years after Katrina, still isn’t what it once was. Yet we have many, many more restaurants than we did when more people lived here. We have a lot of visitors, but there’s a limit based, in part, on the number of rooms available to the business generated by tourists and conventioneers. We also, apparently, have a younger and somewhat more affluent population than we did a decade or so ago, and that may explain the stability of the customer base relative to the decline in overall population. It may also explain why a high percentage of new restaurants, even from chefs with fine-dining credentials, are casual affairs.
There has to be a limit, but we don’t know if we’ve reached it yet. More restaurants (and food trucks and the like) open than close, even now. We won’t know for a few years whether the current number of restaurants represents a true bubble.
One thing Robert isn’t particularly concerned about is that new restaurants will dilute our native cuisine. Many of the new restaurants are, it’s true, not serving traditional “New Orleans” food, but most of the chefs opening restaurants do have at least some background in Creole, Cajun and Southern cooking. The fact that some of the new places serving poor boys are approaching the sandwich from a new perspective doesn’t mean that the classic venues are going away, and until he stops seeing red beans and rice on Monday menus all over town, he’s not going to worry about that great strength of our city disappearing.