La Casita always felt like an appropriate name for the tiny Mexican restaurant on Julia Street. In confines not much bigger than a taco truck, this “little house” packed them in with a casual cantina menu and a popular happy hour until it closed last spring.

Now, the restaurateur behind La Casita has opened El Patio Mexican Kitchen & Tequila Garden (845 Carondelet St., 504-302-1600) in the same neighborhood, and its name seems to fit as well.

The centerpiece of El Patio is a long patio lined with cactus, lounge furniture and brick under strings of lights.

El Patio opened over the weekend, just two blocks away from La Casita’s former home. It is exponentially larger, with room for about 200 across its dining room and patio.

The new restaurant also aims for a more elevated cuisine. On the El Patio menu, you can still get tacos and dips, though the focus is upscale entrees and a much-expanded range of small plates.

“It broke my heart to close La Casita, but here we can do things we never could over there,” said John Michael Wade, founder of La Casita and proprietor of El Patio.

Still, some vestiges from La Casita are central to El Patio, and that starts with the happy hour. It brings the same deals as La Casita, daily from 3 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. and it also repeats after-hours with a second edition from 10 p.m. to midnight.

In 2016, Wade opened a second, much larger La Casita across town, and this Uptown restaurant (8900 Oak St., 504-826-9913) remains unchanged. In May, when the original Julia Street location closed, Wade said he planned to reopen elsewhere in the neighborhood.

The location he found has opened new possibilities for the menu. The kitchen is led by Justin Bruhl, who cooked previously at Maypop and Compère Lapin.

Tequila and lime go into the broth for steamed mussels. Grilled pork belly is plated next to masa dumplings (chocohoyotes) filled with trotters. Toasted chili granola finishes the squash and corn salad. On the taco list, the standard al pastor pork is joined by grilled octopus, lamb barbacoa and fried mushroom tacos. For dessert, churros are the building blocks for horchata ice cream sandwiches.

El Patio serves the same menu throughout the restaurant. But while the dining room is full service, on the patio, customers order at the bar. It’s a more casual format aimed at accommodating groups, where people may drop in or depart on their own checks.

The new El Patio is on the block of the Warehouse District now surrounded by new construction and redevelopment projects. The address was once called Indulge Island Grill, an odd hybrid of pool club/conference center/pirate-themed tavern (the pool has since been filled in).

The second floor here has a banquet room and covered terrace for private dinners, company happy hours and other functions, which should be ready in January.

Lucy's rides a wave overseas 

The surf is up for Lucy‘s Retired Surfers Bar & Restaurant (701 Tchoupitoulas St., 504-523-8995), and this particular swell will land the New Orleans-based beach bar in the Caribbean and Central America.

The parent company of the well-known watering hole and restaurant in the Warehouse District is expanding in Costa Rica and Aruba.

The Costa Rica location opened Dec. 15 in Playa Brasilito, a beach town on Costa Rica’s northern Pacific coast. The Aruba restaurant is expected to open in February in that island’s capital of Oranjestad.

It’s the latest in a series of big changes for a homegrown New Orleans name that has a new owner with big ambitions for the Lucy's brand.

The restaurant has since 2016 been operated by Kirkendoll Management, a local company that got its start in strip clubs and has more recently developed a restaurant division. In a news release, company founder John Kirkendoll explained the Lucy’s expansion overseas as part of a strategy “to diversify from the oversaturated, ultracompetitive U.S. market to international locations where Lucy’s brand will resonate with customers.”

At least one more location in the Caribbean is slated to open in 2018, and a representative of Kirkendoll Management said the company's aim is to make Lucy's "an internationally recognized brand."

That brand's origins were more modest. Lucy’s was one of the touchstones of the Warehouse District when the once-gritty neighborhood was changing into a hub of apartments and condos, restaurants and bars. Lucy’s history goes back to New York, where the original version opened in 1985. When its founders moved to New Orleans, they brought Lucy’s with them and opened in 1992 at 701 Tchoupitoulas St.

Known for its beach shack theme and tropical drinks as colorful as a coral reef, this local Lucy's has long drawn a clientele of downtown denizens, visiting conventioneers, post-shift waiters from other restaurants and, on game days, throngs of Saints fans.

The restaurant has tried earlier expansions, though locations in Austin, Texas and Baton Rouge subsequently closed.

The New Orleans location seemed in peril recently as disputes between the founders and their business partners led to a brief name change. By March 2016, however, Kirkendoll bought into the business and by the summer completed a major overhaul of the property.

Last year, Kirkendoll opened a new Lucy’s in Key West. The same parent company runs a French bistro concept called Bonhomie in Austin.

Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.