In The City’s Dining Room
Eating a meal and feeding the soul
I had a hamburger. It was rubbery and overcooked, and sandwiched between a slightly stale and starchy bun, but I will never lose a bite of it, nor the feeling of its bumpy and viscous path down my dry, nervous throat.
Follow me back to a collective moment and you’ll know my meaning, back to that weary day after hours of travel when we returned to New Orleans from wherever it was we ran to, or ended up. The enormity of everything lost was thick around us, and our minds raced to put some kind of order to it all as our bodies made the first, tired efforts to do the same.
We all went out to dinner that night, didn’t we? We had practical reasons for doing so, of course—dead refrigerators and turned off gas for the lucky ones who still had kitchens; others had worse. But that wasn’t the only reason we went, and it probably wasn’t even the main one.
In our beaten up or destroyed homes, we were alone with our burdens. But when we got to the restaurant, we saw our shock in others’ faces. Did we ever look so closely at the people dining around us as we did that night? And searching others’ expressions, what did we find (or need to find)? Empathy? Commiseration? Did we feel, communally in that moment, the largest question that loomed over all of our heads: Where do we go from here?
Across paper tablecloths set with disposable plates and utensils, the first tenuous connections of community came together again for us in the dining rooms of this city. It didn’t matter what we ate. We didn’t lose our patience with the overtaxed, apologetic server or the spartan menu. Nor did we look at our watches or tap our fingers when the meal was slow in coming. Convenience was the least of our losses, and just then we did not even notice its absence. Eating out, a mainstay and avocation of our pre-Katrina lives, was reduced to something far more elemental for us that night, and it sated us more—or at least differently—than any other meal we would ever likely have.
And so this is a small hymn to dining out in our ruined city.
Every night now I walk my dog through the small circuit of restaurants around my home, and each night I find them full and glowing with the energy of something more than the sum of their parts. Their owners and chefs make do with emaciated staffs, reduced supplies and the accumulating weight of sleepless nights of worry. Yet in a city bathing (drowning?) in uncertainty, theirs have been the brightest beacons of stability.
On my own first morning back, I went to La Boulangerie, my neighborhood bakery, for pastries. I was momentarily stunned to see the extent of its post-Katrina reinvention. Suddenly it was a bustling coffee shop with tables spilling out onto the sidewalk. People shared war stories and met with contractors over coffee, and familiar faces were at every table.
Across the street was an even bigger surprise. The newly opened Savvy Gourmet had refashioned itself into a kind of postmodern, wartime-haute soup kitchen. Corbin Evans, whose much lauded Lulu’s in the Garden was among the post-storm casualties, was now at work in the kitchen, as was Anne Churchill, whose Bywater catering business was shuttered (her Cuban-inflected sideline at the Bridge Lounge, too, was sadly scuttled). Undaunted, she shared with me a litany of plans being hatched at Savvy Gourmet—event dinners, takeaway meals, Saturday night open “parties”—as the space continues its rapid evolution.
Resilience is everywhere. La Crepe Nanou routinely turns out its overflow. John Besh’s Restaurant August flourishes. Dickie Brennan was one of the first to open where he could, and his Bourbon House has become one of the most important stages for the Louisiana oyster’s return. Ralph’s on the Park has flown its flag again in Mid-City in one of that neighborhood’s most encouraging signs. Juan’s Flying Burrito soldiers on, as does its sister restaurant, Slice. Despite losing its patriarch—a Katrina casualty—Casamento’s threw open its doors again in November.
The challenges that these and so many other restaurants will face in the next months and year are unprecedented, and more than a little terrifying. Among Katrina’s victims, some are at least now certain of their losses. These chefs and restaurateurs may feel new ones still. And yet, as our dubious leaders frame out broad and generic vistas of recovery rhetoric, some of the most tangible work of that recovery so far is being done in these kitchens.
And in their dining rooms. One night soon after my return, I had dinner at Herbsaint with two colleagues. On the way to my table, I spotted at least half a dozen faces I knew, and as the meal progressed, more filled the room. Our expressions were different than from that first night, I’m sure. Our shock had abated a little. And, at least to me, the nuances of the food seemed more perceptible—mine, a duck confit and gnocchi, felt appropriate—just the right balance between frivolity and comfort. I think I felt the measure of my adjustment to the new city in that moment on my palate, which was cautiously reopening.
But I also felt this sense across the room itself. New Orleanians are coming home and eating out for many reasons. Some go because the new refrigerator still hasn’t arrived. Others are moved by a sense of civic imperative—save a business, save our culture, buy local. But I think there’s something else. We are compelled to return to our restaurants because we are reconstituting ourselves there. What else do people do after a funeral but repair to someone’s house and eat together?
We will eat out now, perhaps more than we ever did before, because we want to taste some things that were, for a time, lost to us. In limited menus and slower service, we are reminded each night of what is lost still, and may never return. And wherever we eat now, we share a common question with everyone else in the experience—the chef, the owner, the waitstaff and bartender, the couple next to us. Where do we go from here? we ask, realizing, for once, that we are sitting at the same table.