New Orleans, known for its food, bars, and hospitality, had a transformative 2020, even more than most US cities. In a year that began with the grand opening of a new airport brimming with locally-owned restaurants and a food scene full of promising anticipated openings and exciting pop-ups, the industry came to a halt shortly after Mardi Gras. The city was hit hard and early by the pandemic, and by mid March the local and statewide bar and restaurant shut downs began.
Now, we look back at a year marked by heartbreaking closures, an industry braced for disaster, old brands beginning new chapters, and more than ever, locals showing their devotion to the neighborhood standbys getting them through it all.
In some ways the year in food news started March 15, when New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced curfews and capacity limits for restaurants and bars. Those new restrictions quickly became null and void when Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards closed bars and limited restaurants to takeout the next day. While the statewide order stretched into mid-April, Mayor Cantrell extended the dining room shutdown through mid May, setting a precedent for what would become a slightly stricter approach to restrictions than the governor. As New Orleans gradually eased back into restaurant and bar life throughout the spring, bad actors captivated the attention of readers, from police being called to break up crowds at Uptown bars to the return of tourists to the French Quarter.
Closings, revivals, and a new chapter
The wave of restaurant and bar closures began in the spring, with one of the earliest losses devastating longtime patrons of Johnny White’s Corner Pub. Owners announced the permanent closure of the 30-year old, 24/7 Bourbon Street dive bar famous for staying open after Hurricane Katrina in May. Three months later, its sister bar, which had been around for 51 years, also closed for good.
The following month, with the country reeling from the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and people taking to the streets for Black Lives Matter protests, 110-year old New Orleans beer brand Dixie announced plans to change its name. It was one of many companies, like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s Cream of Wheat, to recast its brand amid the broader conversation about racial equity and the historical roots of racism taking place throughout the country. Owner Gayle Benson, who revamped the brewery and brand in recent years, said at the time that “we find it necessary to reflect on the role our brewery can play in making our home more united, strong, and resilient for future generations.” Last month, the company announced its new, neighborhood-inspired name, Faubourg Brewing.
The summer brought another devastating closure, this time a nationally-recognized, historically significant restaurant often credited with putting New Orleans restaurants and Cajun cuisine on the map. K-Pauls Louisiana Kitchen closed for good in July, ending a forty year reign as the French Quarter’s top destination for fine-dining Cajun, as first established by the late, famed chef Paul Prudhomme in 1979. Owners, chef Paul’s niece and the restaurant’s executive chef, cited “repeated closings this year due to mandated business restrictions.”
It wasn’t all bad news, however. Locals were thrilled to learn that New Orleans dive bar institution Ms. Mae’s would live on, under the stewardship of a much-respected local dive bar proprietor. In October, the owners of the Igor’s family of dive bars shared with Eater that they had bought Ms. Mae’s building and would reopen it as such when allowed to do so, continuing the longtime run of a bar that’s synonymous with New Orleans drinking culture to many. It has since reopened, offering one bright spot for a city seeing classics close at a higher rate than newcomers.
Readers were also thrilled with the news that a popular boutique bakery known for picture-perfect macarons, an Instagrammable interior, and sparkly king cakes was returning after a dramatic downfall last year, which included a co-founder accused of sexual harassment followed by a bankruptcy. Sucre got a new owner, Ayesha Motwani, wife of Willie’s Chicken Shack proprietor Aaron Motwani, and she announced plans to reopen the original Magazine Street location. Motwani brought back former executive pastry chef Ashley McMillan and purchased the recipes that made the bakery a hit, since reopening with fancy new decor and pretty-as-a-picture desserts.
Unfortunately the bright spots were punctuated by further loss, with Wayne Baquet’s Treme landmark Lil’ Dizzy’s closing for good, and longtime music venues like Saturn Bar and Circle Bar announcing sales. New Orleanians sought ways to support local music venues, sidelined entirely for the length of the pandemic. And while New Orleans maintained a low enough virus positivity rate to keep bars open under Gov. Edwards’s state guidelines for months beyond the rest of the state, watering holes received their final blow of 2020 on December 30, when indoor service was again halted for the foreseeable future.
Despite the turmoil of the past year, restaurants, bars, and breweries continued to open every month, with many more on the horizon for 2021 — think Rosalita’s tacos, a new seafood spot from the owners of Marjie’s Grill, and a fine-dining restaurant from Alon Shaya in the forthcoming Four Seasons hotel. Here’s hoping that next year New Orleans can look forward to holding onto its dining and drinking institutions while continuing to make room for inspiring newcomers. Popeyes may have beignets now, but hopefully we’ll always have Cafe du Monde.
Eater is tracking the impact of the novel coronavirus on the city’s restaurant industry. Have a story to share? Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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- Crowds Return to French Quarter Bars On First Weekend Open Since March [ENOLA]
- Johnny White’s, Legendary Bourbon Street ‘Bar That Never Closes,’ Closes for Good [ENOLA]
- Famed Cajun Restaurant K-Paul’s Closes After Forty Years [ENOLA]
- Ms. Mae’s, New Orleans Dive Bar Institution, Will Live On [ENOLA]
- Dessert Shop Sucre Will Reopen Under New Owners Known for Willie’s Chicken Shack [ENOLA]
- Just in Time for New Year’s, Indoor Bar Service Shut Down in New Orleans [ENOLA]