Spring is prime time for outdoor dining in New Orleans, when even those most in thrall to A/C will gravitate to the patio, courtyard and sidewalk table. These options have been proliferating all around town lately, but in one area in particular they’re contributing more than just picturesque perches for an al fresco meal.
In downtown New Orleans, the trend for more outdoor restaurant seating is tied to the changing profile of the area, a historic hub of offices and industry now becoming a more densely populated and active center of the city.
Consider Wood Pizza Bistro & Taphouse, a former icehouse in the middle of the Warehouse District, now built out with a wood-fired pizza oven along one wall, a bar lined with draft beer along another, just a handful of indoor tables but a large patio holding down two sides of its block.
“The whole reason for us choosing this place was the patio,” said Billy Wright, who opened the restaurant with his partners on Jan. 1. “We thought it would be an oasis in the middle of the Warehouse District.”
On a recent night, Wood looked like a mini festival grounds, with strings of lights swept up tent-like to a central pole and nearly every table outside filled with people, pizza and pints. Wright minces no words when explaining the appeal.
“It fulfills something primal. People want to get away from the clutter, get outside,” he said. “It’s something we’re hard-wired to do as human beings.”
It’s also in synch with broader development goals for downtown.
“Sidewalk cafes create that vibrancy and street life that people gravitate toward,” said Kurt Weigle, president and CEO of the Downtown Development District. “It’s very circular. The more of that we have, the more people see it and want to be part of it, and the more people there are who want to live downtown, the more restaurants and bars we’ll have to serve them and add to the street life. From a planning and development perspective, it’s a beautiful thing.”
Softening industrial edges
That follows a pattern playing out across the country as people return to city centers and reanimate urban areas, though in post-Katrina New Orleans the pace of change downtown has been particularly swift.
The residential population of downtown has doubled in the last decade, according to the DDD, with approximately 5,000 people now living in 3,500 residential units across the area. That number is expected to grow quickly. Some 1,000 new units, mostly apartments, are slated to open up in the next 12 months and 700 more are in the pipeline behind them.
More restaurants are opening or completing expansions here, too, and by taking it to the streets with outdoor seating, they’re softening the hard edges of their neighborhoods and adding more activity to the street scene.
“It attracts attention. When you see other people out there, it just makes the whole place feel more active,” said Gene Todaro Jr., who last month added a clutch of sidewalk tables outside his one-year-old Marcello’s Wine Bar and Bistro on St. Charles Avenue.
Around the corner, chef Justin Devillier’s new restaurant Balise sports elevated outdoor seating on its second floor gallery and shaded sidewalk tables below. And when the upscale seafood restaurant Trenasse opened inside the Hotel InterContinental late last year, it brought a large patio to the pedestrian mall running adjacent to its dining room.
Planning for patios
Outdoor seating is an integral part of the plan for a flock of new eateries at the South Market District, the multi-block apartment and retail development taking shape in the CBD. The first of these, Blaze Pizza, part of a California-based chain, opened last week with an outdoor patio built in. Four more restaurants — the Vietnamese café Magasin Kitchen, the bakery Willa Jean, the small plates lounge Ursa Major and a second edition of the Company Burger — are expected to open one by one over the course of the summer. Each will have outdoor seating in some capacity, and the project’s developer even extended portions of the sidewalk here to accommodate them.
For restaurateurs, setting the outdoor scene isn’t just a matter of hauling out a few tables on a sunny day. In most cases, there are regulatory hurdles for approval, a city tax for use of the public right of way and insurance costs. And there are operational complexities to consider. Should a rainsquall suddenly arrive, restaurants have to contend with a rush of outdoor diners heading inside, sometimes mid-meal. But those who have taken on the task have found the effort worthwhile.
“It can be more an invitation to draw people in,” said Jeff Hof, managing partner of the seafood restaurant Grand Isle.
Like other restaurants fronting the Fulton Street pedestrian mall near Harrah’s Casino, Grand Isle has long had a string of sidewalk tables available. This spring, the restaurant doubled down, adding a much larger patio framed by planter boxes and sheltered by a broad awning along Lafayette Street.
“We get customers all the time now who aren’t ready for a meal, but they see the space, they want to sit down and just get a drink and be in that space,” said Hof. “Then the appetite opens up a bit and they’re ordering appetizers or oysters.”
Legacy Kitchen, the restaurant that opened last month in the Renaissance Arts Hotel, will add sidewalk tables in the weeks ahead and also retrofit the broad windows of its one-time warehouse address with retractable frames to open the dining room up to the street. Managing partner Paul McGoey said it’s all intended to connect the restaurant with a progression of outdoor spaces at nearby spots like Barcadia and Lucy’s Retired Surfer’s Bar and add its own dose of street life to the neighborhood.
“We wanted the Warehouse District vibe to flow into the restaurant and for the restaurant vibe to flow out to the street,” he said.
Of course, there’s the issue of the impending summer heat flowing in, too. But others who have recently joined downtown’s outdoor dining circuit report that, with the right pitch to the air conditioning, the appeal of open spaces still prevails.
As part of a major renovation completed last year, the deli, bar and meat market Butcher added a roll-up garage door that opens its greatly expanded dining room to the street, where more small tables are arrayed.
Stephen Stryjewski, a co-chef and partner at the eatery, had doubts about the design, but these were wiped away over the course of the last summer and winter.
“The downsides have been minimal. I thought we’d open it maybe for a few weeks in spring and a week or two in fall, but it’s been open practically all the time,” he said. “It gives it a more casual, convivial feel. You want that urban setting, that upbeat feel to the room, and it makes it really easy to achieve.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.