A zodiac theme. A $20 per person reservation fee. Global flavors, inspired by indigenous tribes who followed the stars.
All were lofty goals, served up by the Central Business District restaurant Ursa Major after its May opening. They were also, by and large, marked departures from traditional New Orleans restaurant practices.
But now, just five months after welcoming its first customers, the quirky restaurant has shut its doors. Its owners blame poor plumbing and an uncaring landlord for the closure, rather than waning popularity.
Some diners, expressing their opinions online, seem to disagree.
In any case, a Civil District Court judge is being asked to get to the root of the matter. Co-owners Kevin Farrell and Nick Vivion have sued the South Market District and its developer, the Domain Companies, alleging that Domain’s shoddy plumbing resulted in noxious odors and missed business opportunities for Ursa Major.
The celestial-themed restaurant opened at 611 O’Keefe Ave., in South Market’s Paramount building, May 30 and closed Saturday. It was the second local establishment for Farrell and Vivion, who also run Booty’s Street Food in Bywater.
The Paramount is one of several buildings in the $250 million South Market District, a multiple-block residential and retail development. The project was designed to help create a neighborhood that feels “real,” Downtown Development District CEO Kurt Weigle has said.
But in a suit filed Sept. 1, Farrell and Vivion allege they were driven out of the neighborhood after the developer’s contractor installed plumbing, botched the job and blamed Ursa Major for the problem.
The result was “an overwhelming grease smell” and an “equally disgusting sewer smell,” which the owners first noticed a week before Ursa Major opened, the lawsuit says. A grease trap, which Domain also installed, flooded the restaurant’s scullery area, it says.
“The combination of the these two odors rendered the property completely unfit for any business, much less a food business. Employees were sickened, and patrons were disgusted,” the lawsuit says.
Neither Domain’s New Orleans office nor its registered agent F. Paul Simoneaux returned phone calls Tuesday.
After investigating the smell, Steve Carter, an employee of Domain’s contractor PMC Mechanical Co., told Ursa Major on June 12 that the culprit was shoddy plumbing under the restaurant, the lawsuit alleges. A 40-foot sewer pipe was improperly laid and a crane apparently was driven over exposed plumbing before the concrete was poured, crushing the plumbing system, Carter reportedly said.
Domain and South Market conducted an air-quality test June 17 that showed “nearly double the amount of methane normally found in the air,” even with PMC’s staffers opening doors to let fresh air in, the lawsuit says.
Despite Carter’s statements, PMC principal Chuck Sardi later blamed Ursa Major’s plumbing design and its high-efficiency toilets for the odor. The company came out multiple times to fix the plumbing, forcing Ursa Major to repeatedly close during lunch. Still, the smell never went away, Farrell, the restaurant co-owner, said in an interview.
“The truth is, we didn’t do any of the plumbing work on the building,” Farrell said. He added that the Sewerage & Water Board had no record of a permit filed for the initial plumbing work or for the repairs.
The odor fouled up his business opportunities, he said. For example, on June 30, the New Orleans Concierge Association, a group representing a few dozen of the city’s hotels, dined at Ursa Major. During the event, the plumbing broke, the smell permeated the restaurant and his business’ reputation was besmirched, Farrell said.
However, several critics on the popular business review service Yelp! did not mention the smell as the source of their ire about Ursa Major. Instead, it was the “prepaid” reservation fee that most bugged them.
“I will never go back to this restaurant because they required a charge of $20 a person to make a reservation and then included a 20 percent tip on top of that. ... Where do they think we are — in New York?” reviewer Louise S., of Metairie, wrote.
Others also bemoaned the fee on Yelp! and on nola.com.
But Farrell dismissed notions that his restaurant was too specialized to succeed. He said the restaurant’s bar program — where people qualified for all-night “happy hour” pricing during the season of their zodiac sign — was a huge hit.
The fee system, designed to curb reservation no-shows, was only for those patrons seeking a reservation. And as the system promised, 99 percent of folks who made reservations showed up, Farrell said.
The proprietary reservation system was developed by the Chicago restaurant Alinea and its sister properties and is used by fewer than 20 restaurants around the United States.
“All of those things were really successful. The hardest part, for us, was not knowing on a given night whether we were going to be successful” because of the repeated plumbing breaks and ensuing odors, Farrell said.
Representatives of two other Paramount eateries, The Company Burger and Willa Jean, said they have had no problems with Domain. Unlike Ursa Major, those restaurants hired outside contractors to do their plumbing, they said.
“Everything has been completely fine,” Company Burger owner Adam Biderman said.
As for Ursa Major’s accusations, he said, “I think a lot of things get thrown around when your business goes under. I feel really bad for them because they are nice guys.”
Maggie Moore, a spokeswoman for Willa Jean, said she has not noticed any smells.
She said the area around the South Market District is booming and Willa Jean is happy to be part of it. Willa Jean is helmed by pastry chefs Kelly Fields and Lisa White.
The suit was assigned to Judge Christopher Bruno’s court, Farrell said, though a date for a hearing has not been set.
UPDATE: Wednesday, Oct. 14, 12:51 p.m. -- Domain Companies spokeswoman Megan McNeill responded to Ursa Major’s lawsuit: “Because Ursa Major has filed a claim, we are limited in our ability to comment. That said, their assertions are completely false and baseless and we have no doubt they will be proven so through the legal process.”
Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.