It’s clear that New Orleans is awash in new restaurants. What’s harder to see is just where the tipping point lies, and, with many more new restaurants in the pipeline, whether we’ve already reached it.
That’s why news from the Bywater in particular has raised some eyebrows.
For a long time, the Bywater was better known for its clutch of indispensable New Orleans bar rooms than for restaurants. There were a handful of neighborhood eateries (and the sadly vanished Restaurant Mandich), and there was a frequent refrain that more would be nice.
Then the neighborhood started its post-Katrina turn. It has become a fault line for all kinds of “new New Orleans” dynamics. New restaurants have been a prominent part of the story. First they trickled in; then they poured in.
But in the past year, three have closed.
Booty’s Street Food, which served a collection of international dishes, officially closed at the new year, as nola.com first reported Wednesday.
Just a block away, Maurepas Foods, which took a modern and original approach to local produce and staples, closed in October.
Jims, a small, charismatic sandwich shop nearby on Royal Street, closed in April.
Each of these opened in 2012, and they weren’t alone. That same year the neighborhood saw the debut of Pizza Delicious, Suis Generis and Prime Grille (which quickly closed and soon became Oxalis). Mariza opened nearby early in 2013. More followed, including a new run of eateries that are redeveloping property along St. Claude Avenue.
Early indications point to continued interest in the neighborhood for new restaurant projects. The landlord for the former Booty’s address, at 800 Louisa St., said he’s already shown the property to restaurateurs. While no plans have been cemented, he said the general contours of the next operation should be familiar enough.
“We need this to be a place can eat and drink, a neighborhood place that considers that there are families living nearby, a lot of families, and not be a late-night place,” said Gregg Morris, one of the building’s owners.
The old Maurepas Foods may be up for more attention soon as well. Michael Doyle was the chef, and also one of the property’s owners. When he closed, he left the building’s future undecided. More recently, however, he and his partners have agreed to put the property up for sale.
Doyle said he decided to close Maurepas Foods because business had reached a plateau, and he wasn’t satisfied with what he could accomplish at the restaurant with the revenues coming in.
While Booty’s owners wouldn’t discuss their decision to close, the move came after a tumultuous year. Last spring, they opened a much bigger, more ambitious restaurant called Ursa Major in the CBD, part of the South Market District development. It had an intricate zodiac theme worked into the design, menu and bar, and a ticketed reservation system that has proven controversial in other cities. By October Ursa Major had closed.
At Jims, one of that eatery’s partners (who asked not be named), said business had been steady, but unrelated issues forced the closure. They do not intend to revive the Jims concept.
All kinds of factors can close a restaurant – lease structures and operating plans, financing and credit, management style, marketing, the competitive landscape and, of course, how the food and experience correspond with what people actually want.
Analyzing what went wrong isn’t as easy as calling out a bubble about to burst. But as the New Orleans dining scene grows more crowded, all the pressure points for restaurants get tighter.
In the Bywater, each case surely has different circumstances. But the proximity and timing of these examples draws attention to issues that restaurants face across the dining scene. After years of hearing about a restaurant boom, we’re now hearing sounds of an overload creaking.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.