NOLA's Post-Katrina Restaurant Scene

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As of today, the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, there are 853 restaurants open for business in the New Orleans area. (The pre-storm number: 809. Food critic and author Tom Fiztmorris keeps an up-to-date listing of all restaurant reopenings.) Many of the city's stalwarts have long reopened--Antoines, Galatiores, Commander's Palace--while others, like Dooky Chase, remain closed, barring the odd visit by the President.

I recently spoke to restaurateur Ralph Brennan, of the Commander's Palace-family fame, about the local dining scene these two years post-Katrina. Brennan has a unique take: His French Quarter restaurant, Red Fish Grill, was the first restaurant to open in the city, just 31 days post-storm. Another of his restaurants, Bacco, was the second. (For both openings, Brennan worked with the health department to develop safety standards for running a kitchen with no potable water.) According to Brennan, only 27% of his pre-Katrina staff has returned to work in his restaurants--a notably low number for an operation with an average employee tenure of more than 10 years. Of the returnees, most are management, about 60% of the pre-storm numbers. Of the hourly employees, many of whom lived in the most devastated areas, only 20% have returned. And that's not for lack of trying. According to Brennan, the housing shortage remains the biggest obstacle for his employees who want to return. These statistics echo the city's on the whole: According to local postal data, the current New Orleans population is at 37% of its pre-K numbers as of June, with the majority of returns in the more affluent neighborhoods.

Though most of New Orleans restaurants are concentrated in the French Quarter and Central Business District, visitor traffic is down in those areas that were once the locus of dining in the city. Now, Brennan says, the neighborhood restaurants are faring better. Though they're fewer, they've become important community hubs, serving both as social centers and sustenance for folks who still lack kitchens and living rooms.

The restaurant industry--always one of the city's biggest businesses--is also playing a major role in the recovery, says Brennan. City dining establishments are not only providing jobs for cooks and waitstaff, but also for area farmers and fisherman. In many cases, they were some of the very first businesses to come back, even before grocery stores and gas stations. "It also sends a message," says Brennan, "that we're back and open for business. Things aren't perfect, but we're working hard on getting there."