NEW ORLEANS Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic Louisiana city its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.
In fact, the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau said more restaurants are open now than before the fatal storm.
“Our observations are that despite our drop in population from pre-Katrina numbers, the city reports 1,031 restaurants open today,” said Mary Beth Romig, director of communications and public relations for the CVB. “This is more than ever in our city's history, not just since August 2005.” Romig cites the educated count of restaurants by Tom Fitzmorris of the nomenu.com  website.
Hurricane Katrina plowed ashore just east of New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, killing 1,836 people along the Gulf Coast through the storm surge itself and ensuing weeks of flooding after levees protecting New Orleans were breached. Damages were in excess of $100 billion, making it the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.
Like boxers shaking off standing eight counts, existing restaurateurs are expanding with additional eateries and newcomers are entering the market.
Donald Link, chef-owner of Herbsaint, has opened the highly touted Cochon and attached Butcher. John Besh, chef-owner of Restaurant August, has opened several restaurants, including Luke in the city’s business district. In September, Besh also plans to open Domenica with chef-partner Alon Shaya in the 504-room Hotel Roosevelt, which underwent a $145 million renovation and was reopened in July by the Hilton Hotel Corp.’s upscale Waldorf-Astoria portfolio.
Frank and Marna Brigtsen bought and reopened the neighborhood staple Charlie’s Seafood Co. in suburban Harahan, La. And chef Scott Boswell, whose Stella! just received the top-rated fifth bean from The Times-Picayune restaurant reviewer, has enjoyed steady business at his breakfast-sandwich Stanley restaurant on the French Quarter’s historic Jackson Square.
“This is the best summer we’ve ever had, and it’s not even the busy season,” said Boswell, chef-owner of both Stella! and Stanley. “It’s a combination of both locals and tourists.”
Tourism, a large source of customers for New Orleans’ restaurants, has been building, but it has yet to reach the 10.1 million visitors hosted in the city in 2004. In 2008, according to New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau statistics, the city saw 7.6 million visitors, up from 7.1 million in 2007. In 2006, in the year immediately after the devastation, the city hosted 3.7 million visitors.
“New Orleans restaurants are holding their own and have not felt the sting of the recession as other U.S. cities,” said Wendy Waren, vice president of communications for the Louisiana Restaurant Association.
“There are still jobs at all levels available in the restaurant industry as the unemployment rate remains significantly lower than the national average,” she said. “Restaurateur’s goals during these times are to make payroll and keep up on paying the bills.
“One of our members, Steve Pettus, partner in the Dickie Brennan Restaurant Group, said it best, ‘Flat is the new up,’” Waren said. “That couldn’t be more true. If you are breaking even, you’re doing well.”
For more on New Orleans’ rebirth, see the Aug. 31 issue of Nation’s Restaurant News.