Some Baton Rouge restaurateurs are so confident 2021 will be a comeback year for their businesses, they're moving forward with plans to open new establishments.

These decisions aren't taken lightly after months of coronavirus pandemic restrictions, and uncertainty continues as virus numbers fluctuate.

"Why would a restaurateur be interested in opening a new place during these times?" asked chef Peter Sclafani, who will open his sixth restaurant in February. "I have to be, we need to be hopeful for the future. We have to believe there's going to be an end to this, and I'm banking on the vaccine to help consumer confidence. We need consumers feeling safe going into restaurants."

Stephen Hightower, whose City Group Hospitality owns City Pork Brasserie & Bar, City Pork LSU, City Pork Catering, City Slice Pints & Pizza, Beausoleil Coastal Cuisine and Rouj Creole, agreed. 

"We're definitely looking at opportunity in 2021," he said. "We feel great about our Congress doing what they need to do to help people. They helped us in the beginning, allowing us to get through the first and second quarters with the restrictions."

Hightower, who reopened Beausoleil with a new concept earlier in the fall, added: "We feel like if things get back to some kind of normal, we'll be there for the customers, ready to serve. We are optimistic."

Sclafani said he believes the latest relief bill from Congress will help provide short-term economic relief with several items benefiting restaurants, including a second round of access to the Paycheck Protection Program.

New restaurant in former Rum House

In early February, Sclafani, in partnership with Kiva Guidroz and Michael Boudreaux, will open a new restaurant in the former Rum House. The restaurant, yet to be named, will specialize in Louisiana-inspired comfort foods and have a large outdoor dining space.

"I think outdoor dining is something that's here to stay," he said. "Now more than ever, customers appreciate outdoor spaces."

Sclafani also is a partner in three Portobello's Grill locations, P-Beau's in Denham Springs and Phil's Oyster Bar.

As chairman of the Louisiana Restaurant Association, Sclafani also is in-the-know about other area restaurants openings and reopenings, including T.J. Ribs in Prairieville, which he said will be up and running in February.

Walk-On's

"Walk-On's is opening new locations throughout the country at a rapid pace," Sclafani said. "Still, we're all scared because we don't know what the future holds. We all get nervous when we see the virus numbers go up, but we're seeing hospitalizations go down and ventilator use go down, because we know more about how to treat it."

Walk-On's is expanding its locations by taking on Atlanta-based private equity firm 10 Point Capital as a strategic partner to help the chain reach its goal of opening 150 locations over the next 5 years.

Rio Tacos & Tequila

Downtown Baton Rouge also will see more restaurants open in 2021, said Casey Tate, development project director for the Downtown Development District.

"Rio Tacos & Tequila will be opening on Third Street in January," he said, noting the restaurant at 333 Third St. originally was set to open in early December.  

"They had to push back their grand opening," Tate said. "The group that is opening it also owns and manages Jolie Pearl and the Bengal Taproom. They're doing multiple things downtown."

Tate added that there are still vacant buildings downtown, including the former Lava Cantina at 151 Third St.

"We're hoping a restaurant moves in there," Tate said. "A few restaurants have been thriving, including Jolie Pearl Oyster Bar, which offers live music. Stroube's has brought back its lunch menu, and Cocha on Sixth Street has a built-in crowd." 

Tate said the absence of state workers, many of whom are working from home instead of their downtown offices, has affected restaurants, causing such downtown establishments as Batch 13 to temporarily close its doors.

"The City-Parish workers returned in May, and as state workers return, business should be picking up," he said. "And Congress' first round of stimulus money was helpful to restaurants in keeping employees. Most of our restaurants have been resilient and have stuck around. A few have taken hiatus, but most plan to reopen."

Other eateries expected to open in the new year (and a few that opened in the closing days of 2020) are:

  • Reve Coffee Lab, formerly located in the now-closed White Star Market, plans to open in the Settlement in Willow Grove on Perkins Road near Bistro Byronz with a menu that will include lunch and a full bar.
  • Cheba Hut, a marijuana-themed sub and sandwich shop, is expected to open in March at 411 Ben Hur Road near LSU.
  • Social Coffee, a mobile specialty coffee bar, has opened a shop within Asian street food restaurant Chow Yum Phat at 2326 Hollydale Ave. Though the shop opened in November, the partnership is a key move by the coffee bar, primarily known for its pop-ups, as it enters the new year.
  • Finbomb Sushi opened in Arlington Marketplace, 472 W. Lee Drive, on Dec. 9. This is the first Louisiana location for the Reno, Nevada-based restaurant, which plans to open two additional Baton Rouge locations along with five more throughout the region.
  • Leola’s Cafe and Coffee House plans a soft opening Jan. 9 at The Market at 1857 Government St., in the space formerly occupied by Yvette's Cafe. It will offer breakfast, brunch and lunch.
  • Makers Greek & Mediterranean Cuisine, 216 Lee Drive, hosted its soft opening on Dec. 17. The restaurant is now open seven days a week for dine-in or take-out.

Even though new places are coming along, many others will never again hang an "open for business" sign.

"Unfortunately, we've lost a lot of restaurants," said Sclafani. "A lot of them are closing and are not going to be able to make it because of what's happened with COVID. The news makes the rest of us sound like bad guys, but I know that's not true. I don't trust South Korean data, I trust what I see with my own eyes — I trust what I already know. And I know the virus is not spreading in restaurants."

Sclafani said restaurants were observing sanitation protocols long before the Centers for Disease Control issued its safety recommendations.

"We've always sanitized our surfaces; we've always done these things voluntarily," he said. "We continue to do them, and we've enhanced them even more. We've brought in doctors to test our whole teams, and they told us from the beginning that we were not going to see an outbreak in restaurants." 

Sclafani said all of his restaurant employees wear masks and wash their hands, and the eateries have placed hand sanitizer everywhere for both employees and customers.

"We've had a couple of employees who have contracted COVID, but not in the restaurants," he said. "Generally, they contracted it from their homes. Our restaurants are forever diligent about safety. It's our No. 1 expectation for our guests that we'll be safe, and we will serve safe food in a safe environment. We need more guests to understand this."

Customers, however, lose confidence when they hear that states such as Illinois, California and Washington are shutting down restaurant dining when the virus spikes in their areas.

"And when the governor rolls Louisiana's restrictions back to Phase 2, guests think it's not safe to eat at restaurants," Sclafani said. "I take my family out to restaurants, and it's safe. And I'm looking forward to seeing more guests in the future as the vaccine comes available."


Email Robin Miller at romiller@theadvocate.com