There are different types of busy in the restaurant industry, from the everyday rush to a special event crush. In New Orleans, there’s also “Jazz Fest busy,” which brings its own special considerations, and this week local restaurants are in the thick of it.
Jazz Fest busy means some restaurants that normally close at 10 p.m. are still just seating tables at 11 p.m. as revelers gear up for late nights, while others have to get creative to stow the canvas chairs and bulging backpacks of customers who came directly from the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
It means stocking the wine list with high-dollar bottles for a crowd that restaurant managers know will spend money, while enforcing stricter reservations policies for the same crowd they know may be tempted to skip dinner altogether.
It means balancing the loose vibe of customers who arrive in party mode with the right amount of discipline to keep running a tight ship.
“The energy level is so different all around; it’s Jazz Fest, you can just feel it,” said Stacy Hall, chef de cuisine at Dick & Jenny’s Restaurant.
Casual and colorful, and just two blocks from the essential music hall Tipitina’s, Dick & Jenny’s has become an institution for some Jazz Fest fans. To accommodate them, the restaurant expands service by adding Sunday dinner hours and stretching its normal schedule later into the night. Although the restaurant revamped its menu to bring in more northern Italian dishes since new owners bought the business last year, during Jazz Fest some staples from older menus return to rotation, like a soft shell crab hot pot in green curry.
“That’s one of the dishes we know people coming back during Jazz Fest are looking for,” Hall said.
The 10-day stretch between the start and end of Jazz Fest is the busiest time of year for some New Orleans restaurants, and at least part of the spike comes from people who visit New Orleans annually for the festival and have evolved their own after-party rituals around certain dining rooms.
“They might be from San Francisco or from New York, but once a year they’re regulars here,” said Laurie Bordelon, a proprietor of Liuzza’s Restaurant & Bar, a vintage neighborhood joint not far from the Fair Grounds in Mid-City.
Nearby, Amanda and Isaac Toups opened their contemporary Cajun restaurant Toups’ Meatery just before the start of Jazz Fest in 2012. That proved to be “a real trial by fire,” Amanda Toups said, though it taught the new restaurateurs valuable lessons on handling a rush.
“We had to get better at coursing things out for tables,” Toups said. “Our biggest nightmare is a table that only wants to walk in, drink water and order entrees. The kitchen can’t always keep up with that. If you’re ordering wine, starting with a meat board, then we can pace it properly and the people are happy, they’re not just waiting around.”
They also learned to secure reservations with customers’ credit cards, keeping open the option to charge for no-shows.
“You hate to do it, but if you’re holding tables and turning people away and then those tables never show up you take a real hit, especially for a small restaurant like ours,” she said.
Similar reservation practices have become increasingly common at restaurants around town during Jazz Fest as managers try to balance high demand for tables with the propensity of people to downgrade their dinner plans after a day in the sun (or rain) at the Fair Grounds.
Clancy’s Restaurant recently adopted the policy for Jazz Fest, and while chef Brian Larson said the practice “would have made our skin crawl” just a few years ago, it has become a necessity during festival time.
Still, he said, once people arrive they tend to bring the celebratory nature of the season into the dining room with them. “It’s one of those times of year when you can count on selling the big, big bottles of wine,” Larson said, referring to the pricier vintages on the restaurant’s famously deep list. “People are here to party. It’s that kind of crowd. They’re here for food, music and to have a good time, so for us it’s go time.”