In a period of unprecedented uncertainty, one thing is clear. New Orleans restaurants, which have vanquished foes ranging from storms to economic recessions to oil spills, have never confronted an enemy as dangerous as COVID-19. Even though they’re in the fight of their lives, members of the restaurant community are still looking out for each other.
As restaurants shuttered across the city, New Orleanians found themselves without access to places that have historically offered solace. At the time of this writing, dine-in service is prohibited. Many restaurants have shut their doors, either temporarily or for good, unable to weather the economic battering. Thousands of service industry workers have lost their jobs.
Some restaurants hoped to ride out the storm by offering take-out and delivery service. One of these holdouts is Sofia, the Warehouse District Italian eatery that opened in January 2019. In more than a year, the young restaurant earned critical acclaim (including being named Restaurant of the Year by this magazine) and a strong local following.
According to General Manager Peter Gordon, that local support has helped them through a perilous time, with devoted customers purchasing gift cards for future use and ordering takeout pizzas, pastas and salads.
Not only has Sofia committed to continue operating for as long as possible, it has pledged to help colleagues in the service industry whose livelihoods have been affected, offering a daily “Industry Family Meal” at a deep discount for fellow industry workers.
“We felt it was very important to aid while we could,” says Gordon. “It’s really affecting more people than just our staff… It’s a huge issue throughout New Orleans, and we felt that it was our responsibility to do anything that we could.”
According to Gordon, Sofia’s relatively small size is an advantage in the current climate, with lower overhead costs and the ability to execute a to-go menu with a “skeleton crew.” The management hopes to push on, even in the face of drastically reduced sales, to continue giving back to the community.
Unlike some cuisines whose dishes must be consumed straight from the fire, Sofia is fortunate that its specialties, like wood-fired pizzas, are well-suited to travel. The restaurant’s signature offerings, such as kale salad with beets and hazelnuts, sliced octopus with Romesco sauce and tender meatballs with zesty amatriciana sauce, make excellent at-home fare.
Though Sofia’s food is delicious in any setting, including a semi-quarantined kitchen, the experience is undoubtedly diminished away from the restaurant’s artful dining room and sleek tufted banquettes. Nor does the experience of cooking for an invisible audience match the real thing, acknowledges Gordon.
Despite those challenges, Sofia hopes to carry on doing the thing that Italian kitchens do best: serving meals made with love to people craving comfort. There’s never been a greater need for it.
Sofia, 516 Julia St., CBD, 322-3216, SofiaNola.com; check for hours of service.
MEET THE CHEF
Executive Chef Talia Diele was drawn to the kitchen from an early age. The Denver native learned the art of pasta making from her grandmother and turned her passion for cooking into a career, graduating at the top of her culinary school class. Diele honed her craft in kitchens from Colorado to Florida before taking the reins at Sofia, where she fires pizzas, forms pastas by hand and oversees a menu that, even in a curtailed form, hits some of the highest notes of contemporary Italian fare.
Toups Meatery in Mid-City, helmed by chef and James Beard semi-finalist, Best Chef South, Isaac Toups, serves up modern Cajun cuisine in a family-style atmosphere where diners always feel at home. New happy hour specials offer discounts on wine on Wednesdays and a selection of bar bites, including Toups’ legendary cracklings. Toups and his staff have also provided “family meal” to hospitality and service industry workers looking for homestyle dishes, like red beans and rice, chicken and sausage gumbo and rabbit stew, during the coronavirus crisis. Toups’ regular menu has been available for curbside to-go pickup and delivery.