How New Orleans' drinking and dining scene helped rebuild and reinvent the city

August 20, 2015 

Patrons and waitstaff at Commanders Palace in New Orleans second line through the dining room on August 2, 2015. Photo: Edmund D. Fountain, For The Chronicle / Edmund D. Fountain

NEW ORLEANS — In a city shaped by generations-in-the-making food-ways, Monday is red beans and rice day.

The tradition stems from pre-washing-machine times, when housewives would do laundry by hand while leaving a pot of red beans to cook on the stove all day. Today, smoky red beans still simmer away in kitchens throughout the Big Easy on Mondays.

At the time, Besh had just paid off investors in his elegant Restaurant August in the Central Business District. Though August was spared flooding, the James Beard Award-winning chef couldn't immediately return there. Still, he wanted to help. So, he and his friends — including culinary star Alon Shaya — set out on flat-bottom boats to do what he does best: feed people. The easiest meal to make was one of the city's most iconic dishes.

"The first batch of red beans and rice I cooked was in a Walmart parking lot on Tchoupitoulas," Besh recalls. "It was the first time I ever fed a person who was truly hungry. Oh, I've fed hungry people before, but never people who were so hungry and had everything taken away from them. That changed my life."

He also fed soldiers and relief workers — anyone who showed up. It's been said Besh fed New Orleans until it could learn to feed itself again.

Chef John Besh at his Restaurant August in New Orleans on August 6, 2015. Photo: Edmund D. Fountain, For The Chronicle / Edmund D. Fountain
Photo: Edmund D. Fountain, For The Chronicle
Chef John Besh at his Restaurant August in New Orleans on August 6, 2015.

Besh doesn't like to dwell Katrina. But when he does, he sees the good it brought out in people. He thinks about the struggle of a city brought to its knees learning to walk again. He thinks about how food helped New Orleans heal.

"I literally saw this city not just reborn but revitalized one little dish at a time. Food and service brought us back."

***

Any observation of the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina must consider how crucial the hospitality industry is to New Orleans, a city whose legacy is associated with — and whose economy is greatly affected by — restaurants, jazz clubs and bars.

"In terms of tourism, it's food, music and attractions," says Wendy Waren, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Restaurant Association. "But food is always the first thing people say about New Orleans. They're coming here to eat."

Even more so now. Before Katrina, the city had about 800 full-service restaurants in its tourism corridors, says J. Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. Today there are more than 1,400. Tourism spending is expected to pump more than $7 billion into the local economy this year, Perry says, up from $4.3 billion in the 12 months prior to the storm.

If restaurants and bars have long played an integral part of the city machine, they assumed an even more vital role in rebuilding the city in the days, months and years after Katrina made landfall along the Louisiana and Mississippi state line on Aug. 29, 2005, as a strong Category 3 hurricane.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency says Katrina was the single-most catastrophic natural disaster in U.S. history. It resulted in 1,833 deaths in five states, with Louisiana suffering the greatest loss of 1,577 lives. It caused $108 billion in damages and displaced more than 1 million people in the Gulf region.

And it left one of the country's most beloved tourist destinations in ruins. Storm surges led to levee breaches that resulted in tens of billions of gallons of water spilling into a city of which half lies below sea level. Entire neighborhoods were destroyed and countless businesses devastated. Tens of thousands of people fled. Those who stayed witnessed mayhem and soul-scarring devastation.

But when the sun came out after the storm, so did the will to survive.

***

A shelf mounted on the wall shows the height of the floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina at Finn McCool's Irish pub in Mid City. Photo: Edmund D. Fountain, For The Chronicle / Edmund D. Fountain
Photo: Edmund D. Fountain, For The Chronicle
A shelf mounted on the wall shows the height of the floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina at Finn McCool's Irish pub in Mid City.

Pauline Patterson points to a wall inside Finn McCool's, which she owns with her husband, Stephen Patterson. A moldy, discolored line — "a scar," she calls it — serves as a painful reminder of the levee breach that deposited six feet of dirty water in the Irish pub.

The Pattersons returned six weeks after evacuating to find their Mid-City bar in shambles. "It looked like Armageddon, I'm not kidding," Patterson says. Nothing that wasn't anchored down was in its former place. Bar wells and refrigerators lay where the waters tossed them. Chairs and tables were strewn about as if a massive bar fight had taken place. The place was broken into and picked clean, divested of its cigarettes and alcohol.

"I would have ransacked it too," says Patterson, familiar with the desperation at the time.
The first day the couple started picking up the pieces, about two dozen customers showed up to help. She hadn't asked for the assistance, it just appeared. If she didn't know it before, she certainly realized it that day in October: Her bar was "a beacon."

"The thing with New Orleans people is they love to sit around the dinner table and talk about their lives. After Katrina they couldn't do that. They had no tables, forks or knives," says Patterson who, like her husband, is from Belfast, Ireland. They came to New Orleans in the 1990s, working as professional bartenders before buying Finn McCool's in 2002.

The bar finally got its electricity restored on March 1, 2006, which gave the Pattersons time to plan a proper reopening party for St. Patrick's Day. Countless beers were set out on their new bar top, a length of varnished Pecky Cypress — a gift from one of their most devoted customers, who bought the wood with his FEMA relief money.

Patterson knows her bar served as much more than a place for a pint in her neighborhood's post-Katrina life. It was a community touchstone for neighbors laboring to get back to normal."The bitterness took a long time to release," she says. "But it gave me more love for the people around me. It definitely forged a bond among us. We know we're strong. I saw what we have in us."

***

Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Photo: DAVID J. PHILLIP, Associated Press
Photo: DAVID J. PHILLIP, Associated Press
Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

That determination was evident throughout New Orleans' tourism corridors. It was clear that in order for the city to get back on its feet, restaurants, bars and hotels had to reopen as quickly as possible.

Two weeks after the storm, the French Quarter had its power restored, recalls restaurateur Ralph Brennan, whose Red Fish Grill was among the first to reopen in the Vieux Carre. "Those areas of the city that weren't heavily damaged had to come back and come back fast," Brennan says. "One of the smartest things Mayor (Ray) Nagin did was try to reopen parts of the city that weren't damaged."

Those areas included the French Quarter and most of the Central Business District. The Marigny, Bywater and Garden districts also were spared.

"People started coming back," Brennan says. "Residents started coming back. They'd come to lunch or dinner. There was a lot of hugging and kissing going on. Each of us has a Katrina story, and they're all different."

But in some ways they're all the same. They all share a theme of reconnecting, re-establishing, rebuilding.

"Any place that was open — it didn't matter what it was and if they were serving one item on paper plates with canned soft drinks — everyone flocked to it," says Ann Tuennerman, founder of Tales of the Cocktail, a trade event that focuses on the importance of the drinking culture in New Orleans. "That's how we communicate here, by eating and drinking."

Tuennerman is especially proud of the people who have made New Orleans a spirits paradise with new and better bars in the past decade. "Because of them there's diversity in bars and there's more opportunity for people to work here. Katrina brought people back to the city they loved and helped rebuild it."

***

One of those people was Neal Bodenheimer.

Born and raised in New Orleans, Neal Bodenheimer had spent six pre-Katrina years in New York bartending and wondering how he was going to afford to continue living there. Then the hurricane came. He moved back in 2006, driven by a sense of obligation. "I felt a calling to come back. I felt I needed to be here," he says. "My place was in New Orleans."

It was also the perfect time to realize his dream of owning a bar. By 2008 he and his business partner, Matthew Kohnke, had secured a century-old former fire station on Freret Street in Uptown. Before the hurricane, Freret Street was down on its luck. Immediately afterward it was worse: The area suffered moderate to heavy flooding.

"Matt loved Freret Street even before the storm," Bodenheimer says. "We knew the city wanted to see Freret work. We also knew that in order to get a building up and running there you were really going to have to invest. That's the story of New Orleans post Katrina: In order to rehab a building, it took so much money. You couldn't just wing it. We were two young guys without a lot of money. But we wanted to own something.

When Cure opened in 2009 it ushered in a new era of craft cocktail expertise in 
      a city that is historically bound to the cocktail. It also sparked the 
      revitalization of Freret Street, now a thriving thoroughfare of hip 
      restaurants, bars, retail and live music.      Photo: Kevin O'Mara
Photo: Kevin O'Mara

When Cure opened in 2009 it ushered in a new era of craft cocktail expertise in a city that is historically bound to the cocktail. It also sparked the revitalization of Freret Street, now a thriving thoroughfare of hip restaurants, bars, retail and live music.     

When their bar, Cure, opened in 2009 it ushered in a new era of craft cocktail expertise in a city that is historically bound to the cocktail. It also sparked the revitalization of Freret Street, now a thriving thoroughfare of hip restaurants, bars, retail and live music.

It's a great example of how newcomers and returning New Orleaneans brought fresh ideas to a city that had traditionally resisted reinvention.

"We had a lot of ideas coming from outside intermingling with native ideas. Katrina moved the needle to progress," Bodenheimer says. "The city needed to look to the future in order to survive. New Orleans as a city could not have become a better city without that destruction. It basically shook up the establishment. And that's always a good thing."

***

Chanteclair Room at Brennan's, New Orleans. Photo: Brennan's / Brennan's
Photo: Brennan's
Chanteclair Room at Brennan's, New Orleans.

Change is inevitable, says Elizabeth Pearce, a local cocktail historian, writer and tourist guide. "Change sometimes screws people over, and change can also benefit people. But New Orleans is a city that historically doesn't like change."

Indeed, the city cheered major comebacks of beloved institutions crippled by Katrina, Pearce says. Lines went down the block when Café Du Monde reopened in the French Quarter. When Angelo Brocato's Ice Cream & Confectionary reopened in Mid-City after being severely damaged, it was a cause for celebration. Ditto the opening of other Mid-City businesses like Mandina's, Liuzza's Restaurant & Bar and Parkway Bakery & Tavern.

But as much as people wanted New Orleans to get back to normal, it was also clear the city would never be the same again.

"People went back to their favorite restaurants because for two hours they could forget about the Sheetrock, the mold and the insurance," Pearce says. "You could recall your life before and believe you could re-create it again. It gave you hope."

But, she adds, "You couldn't really re-create. You could only create something new."

And it's the new that most excites Ti Adelaide Martin, co-owner with her cousin Lally Brennan of the historical Commander's Palace restaurant. After Katrina, Martin says, the city saw incredible changes. They came from outside: Volunteers, entrepreneurs, business speculators and a generation of young people made their way to New Orleans. "Instead of a brain drain, we had a brain gain," says the restaurateur who, along with her brother Alex Brennan-Martin and cousin Lally, also ownsBrennan's of Houston. "My favorite thing of all is what's happened with entrepreneurship. This town is a hotbed of entrepreneurship. It's unbelievable."

Change also came from inside, from the very people who were left and determined to pick up the pieces. "We turned this city around," Martin says. "It's a better city today. And we did it ourselves. We fixed it all."

***

 
 

If not all, New Orleans certainly has fixed much of it, especially the all-important cogs of hospitality and tourism. Ten years after Katrina, the city's hospitality industry hasn't just rebounded, it's surpassed pre-hurricane days.

In addition to the new restaurants, hotels are on the upswing. The metropolitan area now has more than 38,000 hotel rooms, about 850 more than before Katrina. More are in the works, including a 234-room Ace Hotel scheduled to debut in the Warehouse District mid-2016, and a 350-room Four Seasons in the former World Trade Center building at the foot of Canal Street, pegged for a 2018.

"It's a rather astonishing economic recovery story that illustrates the power of travel and tourism, especially in a city like New Orleans where the economy is very much based on the culture, travel, events and conventions," says Perry, the Convention and Visitors Bureau's president. "There's no question that the economics of New Orleans and the re-creation of the tax base was all driven by the hospitality industry."

And Houston is fueling that economic turnaround. "Our number one tourism feeder base in the entire nation is Houston, Texas," Martin says. "I've said this often: While the government didn't come help so much, particularly at the beginning, American citizens came, especially Houstonians. No city has been better than Houston was to New Orleans. Houston came and helped, took people in. Never has one city in the history of the world been better to another. And I promise you, New Orleaneans know."

While Houston provided a good shoulder for New Orleans to lean on, it was the city's own collective gumption that got it going again. "We felt like it was the mission of our lives. How often do you have a major American city completely wrecked like the way we were?" Perry says. "For all of us that were part of this coming back, it was a work of incredible love. For us, it was the work of a lifetime."

Perry says he recently visited with the legendary Ella Brennan, considered the queen of New Orleans cuisine, and mentioned what he called the good old days before Katrina. "She said, 'Let me tell you something. The good old days are right now,' " he recalls.

She's probably right, he says. "We'll look back at now as the golden period. All that New Orleans is most associated with — jazz clubs, restaurants, bars — all of that came roaring back. It not only brought the tourism economy back, it gave faith to the locals that the city's soul and core were still intact."

***

2015 marks 10 years since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Photo: Richard Nowitz, Photographer / ©2012 Nowitz Photography
Photo: Richard Nowitz, Photographer
2015 marks 10 years since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.

Elvis Byrd, is part of that core. A bus driver for the New Orleans Airport Shuttle, is one of the first local faces tourists see when they land in the Big Easy.

It's his duty, he said, to make a good first impression. Not for him, for New Orleans. "It's all about the people coming here and enjoying the city, eating the very special food, and having a good time," he says.

He considers himself fortunate because his house didn't flood. But Katrina shuttered his employer, forcing him to move to Oklahoma for eight months to find work. When he came back he was part of the city's economic and emotional recovery. He's proud of that.

"This city is better than it was before," Byrd says. "If you drive around the city you see a lot of construction and a lot of new buildings and houses being put up."

He calls New Orleans a city of survivors: "We have resiliency."

His voice is among the choir singing about a new New Orleans.

It's the voice of returning son Neal Bodenheimer: "We've been able to show the world what a special city it is. My goal is to make New Orleans a better city, and it will be until my last breath."

It's the voice of Louisiana native John Besh: "When I look back at 10 years, there's something to celebrate. It's something that should inspire any other American city that has been hit by tragedy. It's a lesson on how passion can overcome something so devastating."

And it's the voice of émigré Pauline Patterson, whose Finn McCool's bar bounced back so well that she and her husband were able to buy another bar, Treo. They're planning "a massive" party to mark the Katrina anniversary, she says. No disrespect for the death and destruction, the party will celebrate life — the blood, sweat and tears it took to rebuild.

That scar on the wall she couldn't stand? In the back of the bar toward the kitchen, she placed a long shelf on the wall at the exact height of the water line.

"So if it ever happens again," she says, "we'll have a place to put our beer."