With one French Quarter restaurant (Iris) bracing itself for the unholy onslaught of a Mardi Gras Super Bowl, and a brand new Bywater joint (Mariza) set to open its doors in the Rice Mill Lofts in just three weeks, describing Maître d' Laurie Casebonne as "busy" is an understatement on par with describing parade revelers as "buzzed." Casebonne runs Iris, which opened Uptown in 2006 and moved to a larger (and more agreeable) French Quarter location in 2009, with her husband, Chef Ian Schnoebelen, and the pair has enjoyed so much success and critical good will that they've been able to branch out a little, getting in on the wave of creative new restaurants opening in the Bywater. Casebonne, who already oversees all front-of-house happenings at Iris, will have to juggle the tall order of launching a new restaurant just as the city's hotels fill up with sports fans and partyers, but it's okay, she explains good-naturedly, because she and Chef Ian are restaurateurs and having a packed house is never a thing to complain about. Besides, she's making sure that Iris's employees get their quota of good times by closing up shop Sunday through Wednesday of Mardi Gras weekend.
How long is the wait for a party of two at 7:30 on a Saturday night?
Well, I think it depends on the season. During the busy season, I think we might be able to accomodate a walk-in at 7:30 on a Saturday immediately, but you never really can tell. During the slower season like the summer, for sure. Almost any night we have availability at most times. I think I'd always recommend that if someone knows they're coming to visit us, they should call in advance so we can go ahead and work something out. Then again, if you're coming between 6 and 7, or between 8:30 and closing time, it's a little bit easier than 7:30. But we do have a really nice bar and people don't usualy mind sitting down and having a cocktail before dinner before sitting down at a table. I'd say our business is mostly a seasonal thing.
Are you guys expecting to get pretty slammed with the perfect storm of Mardi Gras and the Super Bowl?
Yeah, I'm already nervous about Super Bowl weekend. We have lots of large parties coming. I think we have Sports Illustrated coming one night with a group of 30, and then just a lot of big, company-related groups. So, yeah, it's going to be really busy, but it's going to be really fun, too. We're pretty close to where the activity is on the upper Quarter, close enough to all the hotels, yet far enough from the Dome so you don't have to worry about all the game traffic. It's right about where everyone wants to be, so it's going to be a bustling weekend, for sure.
And then Mardi Gras is going to be a lot of fun too, although we do give ourselves and our employees off Sunday through Wednesday. We're always closed on Sunday and Tuesday, but we'll also close on Monday and Tuesday that week so we can do our own celebrating. And then right after that is Valentine's Day, which is another big holiday for our restaurant, since we're sort of an upscale, romantic place. We tend to fill out every year for Valentine's Day, and we offer a four-course, prix fixe dinner with choices for each course. The chef also tries to make some special menu items.
So yeah, it's going to be a pretty busy couple of months. Then, we enter spring, which is usually our best season.
What are the differences between the traffic for that old Carrollton location and your current spot in the French Quarter? Are you guys way busier now?
I think both spots had their own distinct personalities. Of course, my husband, Chef Ian, and I are the same, and we also took a few of our employees with us, so we maintained a little bit of that continuity. We're a little more dressed up where we are right now, and we don't have some of our regular, Uptown customers coming to us as often as they used to, but I would say we definitely do have a little bit more tourist business now. When we were Uptown, concierges would try to send guests to us on Jeannette St., but they never really wanted to take the 20-minute cab ride. It's funny because when you're in other cities, you'll travel all over to go somewhere, but people just don't want to cross from Downtown to Uptown to go out for dinner.
We see some different faces now than we used to. The old restaurant was only 10 tables, so it was tiny, but I loved that little space in the old converted cottage. Actually, I'm still a customer there, because our good friend Nathaniel Zimet is the one who took over there and he's doing great business with Boucherie, so I think maybe his restaurant might fit better into the restaurant scene down there than ours did.
Do you find that the larger space gives you more room to breathe or, with more tables, are there just more challenges to contend with?
I think the larger space is better for us because, just like you mentioned earlier that coveted 7:30 reservation, when we were Uptown, we had ten tables and everyone wants to come at once. We really had to sell people on coming earlier or later so we could get two turns for all ten tables. Now that we have 18 tables with a courtyard of four tables, we have a little bit more wiggle room. We don't have to do two turns on all of those tables. We have more tables with which to accomodate people at the times that they want to dine with us.
We basically have the same structure, just on a bigger scale. We also have a much bigger bar now, which is good for having people just hang out.
We're also in the middle of opening up another restaurant right now, so that kind of adds to the general business. That one is in the Bywater...
Inside Mariza [Photo: -ENOLA-]
I was actually going to ask about Mariza. Could you talk maybe a little bit about how involved you and Chef Ian will be with day-to-day activities over there?
Mariza's going to be in the Rice Mill Lofts on Chartres in the Bywater. It's going to be a little bit of a different concept than Iris?a little more casual, another big bar, kind of an atmosphere where people can come, meet friends, maybe order some drinks without feeling like they're having this structured, fine dining, appetizer-main course-dessert type meal. It's going to be a little more of a neighborhood-y place, and it's going to have an Italian-influenced menu. It'll still be Chef Ian's food, but with lots of homemade pastas, salumi, a couple of pizzas, just a few little craft cocktails, and a smaller wine list. We feel like we're going to be pretty busy and we're opening in less than three weeks, so actually we're really busy right now.
The next month or two will be us figuring out who's going to be where, when, and we're probably both going to be at Marizza for the first couple of weeks, then it'll be divide and conquer?he'll be at Mariza and I'll be at Iris?until we feel that everything has been worked out.
What is your go-to gatekeeping tool, something that helps you stay organized amid this flurry of activity?
I make lots of lists. My mom and I were just talking about this?we're real list-makers. I'm always crossing things off my list then writing a new list so everything is cleaner. It really helps to stay organized. Then I have Open Table at Iris, and at Mariza, we're not going to do reservations, so there'll be a lot less phone calls there. I run the business in the office, so there's lot of office work and accounting work, but I tend to do certain things on certain days. It helps to keep things structured. For instance, I'll cut checks on Wednesday, figure out payroll on Monday, order wine on Thursday, see wine purveyors on Friday, you know, that sort of thing. It's just so I know what I'm doing when I get up in the morning. I don't know if I'm doing it right, but we're still open so... [laughs].
What specific qualities do you privilege in your wait staff? What are skills that you think are hard to teach someone, that they either have or don't have?
I have done all the front-of-house hiring in the past. Now that we have two restaurants, I'm probably going to let go of a little bit of that control to my assistant managers, but I do believe that when you're interviewing someone, there's just sort of a spark or connection with the right kind of person. Of course, food and wine knowledge and experience are very important, but sometimes, you can have a little wiggle room with people who just seem like they're going to be the right fit?they're especially friendly and eager to learn, or they're the type of person who likes to work in a small, family-run restaurant as opposed to a larger, more corporate (probably more lucrative) place. You don't always get them right, but the ones that last are really good.
Is it harder to screen for people when you have a place in Quarter, since it seems to be the primary destination for people newly settled in the city?
That's a good question. Oftentimes in the interview process, city geography comes up and I will ask someone what their mode of transportation is and if they're familiar with the Quarter. Most of the time they are familiar, and they wouldn't have come here to apply if they thought it would be a problem. A lot of our employees ride their bikes. One rides a skateboard. There are a couple of drivers. You just start to know where the spots are, but you've got to give yourself plenty of time to get where you're going.
I don't think being in the Quarter has been a hindrance to finding good people. It seems like every time I put an ad out, we have tons and tons of responses. I think that there are just more people out there looking for jobs than there are jobs to be had. There's a special thing about the Quarter. I think everyone enjoys going there. It's sort of like, for a lot of people in the city, a special occasion thing, like you're going to make a night of it. I always think of it as a nice place to take someone on a date.
When you go out to eat, provided you have the time to get out, are there any elements of restraurant service you pay particular attention to? Do you have any service pet peeves?
I've been in the restaurant business since I was about 17. Doing what I do attracts a left brain, attention to detail kind of personality, so when my husband and I go out, we both notice some things that we don't like about some restaurants. We are able to turn it off and have a good time, but we have pet peeves. I don't like it when servers are too pushy or overly-friendly. I mean, of course I also don't like it when they're not friendly at all. I'll also notice every little thing about wine service, but I'm usually not hyper-critical about that because not every restaurant is as fancy as we are. I'm able to just go out and have a good time. We do a lot of watching football and drinking beer on our day off. We don't often go to restaurants, but when we do, we enjoy it.
What are some of most outrageous requests you've had to field since your move to the Quarter?
Sometimes, secretaries call wanting to get reservations for their bosses, and either their bosses left it until the last minute, or they left it until the last minute, but they can get pretty pushy and rude, which is makes it difficult when you're trying to get somebody to do something for you. Some people, thought, are just rude and won't take "no" for an answer.
Anything you'd like to add?
Well, Mariza's opening January 24th. Also, Iris is open for Friday lunch. I don't know how many people know about it because we don't really advertise it. We do a three-course lunch for $20 a person, and you get to choose from all the appetizers and all of the entrees?it's like a build-your-own prix fixe menu.
· Iris [Official Site]