On a warm Friday evening, it was easy to hear the music flowing from the outdoor stage at Happy’s Irish Bar from a block away, even above noisy cicadas competing to be heard.
It was the day after July 4, and downtown Baton Rouge was relatively quiet, but more people ventured out for dinner and drinks during the evening as the night cooled off. Live music also was playing at Jolie Pearl Oyster Bar; Schlittz and Giggles was airing the Pelicans on TV; and rolling down Third Street were about 20 people with the Geaux Ride bicycle krewe — music playing from a speaker and tires all lit up.
Downtown is a lot more active than it was 15 or 20 years ago, but the area’s restaurant and nightlife market has taken a blow after several high-profile properties closed over the past year. Many say it's just the ebb and flow of businesses opening, closing and being replaced, while some cite other factors.
In July 2018, Lava Cantina, a Mexican rock ’n' roll-themed restaurant on Third Street, shut down. The owners briefly operated it as a private party space, but the property is now dark. Third Street nightclub 1913 shuttered in August. Another Broken Egg closed its spacious location in the IBM building in September, the same month Somos Bandidos, a North Boulevard taco shop, closed. Driftwood Cask & Barrel shut its Third Street space in June; a week later, Magpie Cafe closed its Commerce Building location.
Thoughts on the area are mixed from downtown restaurant and bar owners, and those who watch the market. There is optimism about entertainment downtown and its continued growth because of residential and business developments on track to open. There also are key issues keeping it from breaking out, such as high rent and a population that still falls a little short of the numbers needed to support the market downtown.
Operating a food-focused business is difficult, and there will be turnover, said Eric Carnegie and Chad Hughes, who noted that they regularly see vacated spaces almost instantly replaced by a new business.
“I would be worried” about businesses failing downtown, Carnegie said, “if there was a restaurant voted No. 1 in the U.S., and it came to Third Street but closed. Then you could say I might be worried. But it’s not. There is money to be made downtown.”
He should know. You can’t walk a block down Third Street — from Main Street to North Boulevard — without passing a restaurant or bar that Carnegie and Hughes have their hands in, together or with others: Bengal Tap Room, City Bar, Boudreaux & Thibodeaux, Happy’s Irish Bar. Round the corner, and there’s also Jolie Pearl Oyster Bar on North Boulevard.
Then there's The River Room on Laurel Street, which Hughes helped Brad Watts open, and Cecelia Creole Bistro, which Carnegie and Hughes also helped Watts start next to the Bengal Tap Room.
“There’s a lot of people putting a lot of effort and money down here to make it better,” said Hughes, who grew up alongside Carnegie in Baton Rouge. “Just being from Baton Rouge, we wanted to get involved. We love downtown.”
“When we were probably in early high school,” Carnegie said, “the only thing you could do downtown was go to a Kingfish game or play on the railroad tracks. There were no restaurants, hotels, nothing. For us, being here all of our lives, we’ve seen a massive revitalization.”
"In 2001,” recalls Davis Rhorer of the Downtown Development Authority, “we had zero hotel rooms in downtown.” It was shortly after that year t…
Davis Rhorer, the head of the Downtown Development District, said downtown is healthy and just undergoing a natural turnover of business. He cited several vacated spaces that will be hosting new businesses soon.
Squeaky Pete’s, a country and western bar, will open soon in the old Driftwood spot. Key Real Estate, which owns and leases the Commerce Building, has tenants it hasn't yet identified lined up for the former Magpie space and for a 4,000-square-foot rooftop space. The rooftop space has been vacant since the 93-unit apartment building reopened in 2016.
Brian Ott, the former owner of Uncle Earl’s bar on Perkins Road, said he will open a live music venue in the former 1913 space at the end of August. Although details are still being worked out, Ott said the venue will book national and local acts. “We’re going to have different types of music,” he said.
East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome agrees that businesses coming and going from downtown is part of the development process.
“While certainly we want every business to be successful, not only downtown but anywhere in our parish, we must always view changes as an opportunity to evaluate the needs of the marketplace," she said. "We will continue to support the appeal of downtown for residents, businesses and visitors, particularly by investing in new assets like our bike-share program, increased green space and public amenities."
Carnegie and Hughes credit several things for a continued revitalization downtown, like an increase in businesses, beneficial policies during former Mayor-President Kip Holden’s administration, and a number of food and music festivals and other activities staged downtown. They say any perception that restaurants and bars can't make it downtown is due to some not-so-serious business owners — absent owners or owners who treat their business as a hobby.
“Downtown had a bad stigma for a while,” Hughes said, “and I think you could credit that to a few bad operators down here.”
Others don't fully share Rhorer, Carnegie and Hughes' view of downtown. Lynn Daigle, who tracks the commercial real estate market in Baton Rouge, said although downtown has made “a ton of progress” in recent years in terms of developing upscale apartments, there are still not enough people who live in the area to completely support a healthy market.
About 10,000 people need to live downtown, she said. According to a toolkit released by the Downtown Development District in July 2018, an estimated 9,412 people live in the area.
“They’re not at that line of having enough people,” said Daigle, an agent with NAI/Latter & Blum.
Along with falling a little short in terms of having a solid population base, Daigle said restaurants have another challenge: high rent. New commercial space downtown rents for more than $20 a square foot, rates that are similar to space in commercial areas such as Towne Center at Cedar Lodge, the Rouzan mixed-use development on Perkins Road and the fast-growing Lee and Burbank corridor. “It’s a numbers game,” she said.
Older commercial space downtown rents for $12 to $20 a square foot, rates that are similar to what you can find on parts of Perkins Road. The difference is those spaces and bars are near large neighborhoods. “It’s a stretch to make a drive downtown when there are so many options closer to home,” Daigle said. “There are all these competing submarkets.”
Despite having higher rates for office space than the Baton Rouge average, occupancy rates are on par with the rest of the city. According to figures released at the Trends in Real Estate seminar earlier this year, the occupancy rate for downtown office space is just under 83%. The rate citywide is 85.6%. While the average rate is $22.34 per square foot across Baton Rouge, downtown space goes for $24.44 a square foot.
Mitch Rotolo, founder and CEO of Rotolo’s Pizzeria, which has 20 restaurants in south Louisiana, said he doesn’t have any locations downtown, but he is interested in opening in the area.
“It’s maturing,” he said. “There are enough services for the current population that’s there. As more housing and more industry moves in, it becomes more attractive.”
But Rotolo said he’s worried about politics and businesses coming and going from downtown. “It’s not consistent enough,” he said. In areas such as Siegen Lane, businesses are regularly rolling in.
Rhorer said there are pillars of stability downtown. Several large hotels have opened in recent years, causing the area to reach its long-standing goal of having more than 1,000 rooms. A number of upscale residential developments have opened, providing thousands of new full-time residents. More downtown draws are on the horizon, such as the new downtown library branch, the renovated Raising Cane’s River Center Theater and the redevelopment of the Chase South Tower into 150 luxury apartments.
“This will all fill bars and restaurants downtown,” Rhorer said.
The problem is that downtown Baton Rouge doesn’t know what it wants to be, said Lloyd Ruffins, owner of Ruffins Downtown Daiquiri Lounge on Main Street, the only black-owned bar in the area.
About 10 years ago, Ruffins fell in love with the Zachary area and moved there from New Orleans. (Ruffins is the brother of famous New Orleans trumpeter Kermit Ruffins.) Around 2015, he wanted to wind down his job as a surgical sales rep and saw an opening for a New Orleans-style daiquiri shop downtown. His business marked four years in June.
“They said downtown Baton Rouge was about to explode,” Ruffins said. “It was going to be wonderful. It was going to be great. A lot of people are moving down there; things are happening — the IBM building, the hotels. I was sold on that. It has not come to pass. In my view, it has been a total bust.”
Ruffins said downtown Baton Rouge is a business district. “It’s not a party district or a tourist district,” he said. “And the powers that be that control downtown, the politics, they’re trying to mold it into what they want it to be. In other words, they want it to be white, middle class, conservative, quiet."
Ruffins said he isn’t sure if he’ll stay on Main Street. “Not because I can’t, but because I’ll choose to move somewhere else. You know, once you really get beat up a lot, you get kind of fatigued. You’ll prefer to go somewhere where you’re wanted.”
Austin Wong, who operates the fast-casual Asian restaurant Chow Main just down the street from Ruffins, is more bullish on downtown.
Wong said he wasn’t intentionally seeking a space downtown for his own restaurant, “but looking back, I would not have it any other way.”
Chow Main opened in November near the corner of Fifth and Main streets in the same building that also houses the Main Street Market, where Wong’s father, Paul Wong, has operated a booth serving Chinese food since 2006. The Wong family has for decades operated restaurants in the city, including the Chinese Inn on Airline Highway.
Chow Main is in a 1,030-square-foot space that was formerly occupied by Pam’s Capital Corner Market. When Austin Wong heard the former owner was selling the space, he saw an opportunity to learn the ropes of operating his first restaurant in a relatively smaller space. “Anywhere else would be too big,” the 25-year-old said.
In the past decade, Wong said, between helping in his father’s booth, working at the Saturday farmers market and bartending at the Manship Theatre, “I’ve seen downtown’s restaurant and bar scene experience dramatic changes for the better.”
He recognizes that some businesses have struggled and closed, but the overall quality of options in the area has increased, citing Cocha, Cafe Mimi, Jolie Pearl and Cecelia. “Collectively, these businesses help cultivate downtown to be a more attractive destination,” he said.
Poor Boy Lloyd’s has been open at the corner of Florida and Lafayette streets since 1967. Starting back in 2000, it was one of the first downtown restaurants to open for dinner on weekend nights.
“It took a while, but now we get people coming from other parts of town,” said owner Fred Taylor. Taylor said events at the hotels, River Center and Shaw Center bring people to his restaurant.
Taylor said although some of the downtown traffic seems to have gone down, it’s not an issue for his restaurant. Poor Boy Lloyd’s closes at 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, just when the bars are beginning to get busy.
“If we get other entertainment, things will be fine,” he said. “We see things pick up when there are other activities going on.”