Jim Conte and chef Matthew Guidry began telling their regulars at Meauxbar Bistro early on. They wanted them to know first — and hear from them — that after 10 years in business they had decided to close the French Quarter restaurant, which they did in February.
Still, it wasn’t long before the two restaurateurs started hearing the rumors. Some speculated that Conte and Guidry had lost their lease (in fact, they owned the building), others that their partnership had dissolved (in fact, the two are partners in life as well as business, and remain happily together). Instead, the move was strategic, and the decision was their own.
“Oddly enough, Matthew and I started Meauxbar with the idea that it would be a 10-year project and then we’d see what happened,” said Conte. “We feel like we had a fantastic run and we succeeded in what we wanted to do.”
They were able to sell the business and its property quickly, and last week new owners reopened Meauxbar, using the same name.
In the famously demanding restaurant business, there are ventures that fold quickly while others become institutions, carrying on for decades or even generations. But Meauxbar is one of a string of prominent local restaurants that have recently closed in mid stride, while still popular and, according to their owners, still profitable. Along the way, they’re showing a different idea for a restaurant’s lifespan, one that’s at least partially influenced by the currently booming market for restaurant properties in New Orleans.
For instance, Lee McCollough and chef Scott Snodgrass sold their nearly decade-old One Restaurant & Lounge at the end of 2013. Three months later, new owners opened the upscale bistro Carrollton Market there.
“We just wanted to test the market at first, we hadn’t made a firm decision to sell,” said McCollough. “But then we realized we had achieved what we wanted, that we ran this restaurant successfully and could sell it. We realized that’s what we wanted to do.”
In the French Quarter, Laurie Casebonne and her husband, the chef Ian Schnoebelen, closed Iris just last week after a run that began in the months after Hurricane Katrina.
“You always hear that after three years you have a much better shot at making it in the restaurant, but what’s making it?” said Casebonne. “We made it. We did this on our own terms.”
The couple opened a second restaurant, Mariza, in 2013. They found that running two restaurants was stretching them too thin, and decided to focus their energy on Mariza, which is more casual, closer to their home in the Bywater and closer to their current culinary interests.
The decision to close Iris wasn’t easy. They mulled it for a year. But it took no time at all for a new restaurateur to snap up the location. Just two weeks after the Iris owners announced their plans to close, the well-known cocktail expert and author Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and his wife Annene announced their own plan to take over the spot, which is slated to reopen in September as a tiki-themed restaurant called Latitude 29.
Meanwhile, the new Meauxbar represents changes for two restaurants: the original Meauxbar and also Ste. Marie.
That CBD bistro appeared to be on its own upswing lately as a new chef, Kristin Essig, joined the staff in the past year and a raft of new developments took shape around it. But owner Robert LeBlanc wanted Ste. Marie to be a neighborhood restaurant, and he said that wasn’t possible while catering to a constantly-changing clientele drawn by different shows and sporting events at nearby venues. So when he learned that the smaller Meauxbar property was available, he decided to close the three-year-old Ste. Marie and essentially move his entire operation to the French Quarter spot, with the same chef, managers and staff.
“We think we can reach in here and become part of this neighborhood in a way we really couldn’t before,” said Essig. “Jim and Matt left on a high note and we want to continue that.”
That started by keeping the name, and by changing the interior design but leaving Meauxbar’s classic bistro layout the same. On the menu, it means combining some of the dishes Essig had developed at Ste. Marie, like a crab and quinoa salad, with touchstones from the old Meauxbar, like escargot and pasta Bolognese. Just as important, said manager Natalie Secco, is forging the same kind of personal connections with regulars that distinguished the previous Meauxbar.
“I’m really excited to be able to be us here,” said Secco. “We don’t have to mold ourselves to what’s happening around us. We can be that neighborhood restaurant that we couldn’t really be before.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.