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Ti Martin, right, of Commander's Palace, listens as Lelia Lambert, far left, leads the staff in a meeting in the garden room as the restaurant prepares for reopening during the coronavirus pandemic in New Orleans, Sept. 8.

No one drives to South Dakota for the food.

Well, maybe North Dakotans, but not if they can get to Minnesota quicker.

That’s no knock on either state, but it’s just to say that, unlike the tundra states and most others, Louisiana separates itself from the rest of America when it comes to dining out, something people relished here in the pre-pandemic era. The fear that haunts Louisiana is when the coronavirus cloud lifts, our restaurants will have vanished.

Some, like La Pizzeria in Lafayette, may weather the worst. Randy Daniel bought the restaurant last year and operated under the pandemic’s punishment; business is down but he’s holding on. Of course, even fancy pizza is a good take-home buy.

But at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, surroundings are as much to savor as the fare. Housed in a Victorian mansion, its familiar exterior and rich interior beckon as much as the food. It’s a place to be, its atmosphere itself cause for celebration. Take out? Not so much.

Ti Martin of Commander’s Palace, speaking at this newspaper's Economic Outlook 2021, said sales in January were running at a quarter of what they were a year ago. The vaccine, she said, can’t get here quick enough to cure not only the sickness but flagging restaurant revenues, too.

What to do? Well, more. Gov. John Bel Edwards’ Phase 2 mandate keeps restaurant capacity at 50%, with no imminent relief. Must that number be ironclad? Is 60% impossible everywhere?

Martin said almost a third of restaurant operators think they’ll close within six months, and what they represent is more than a few good meals. Few things say Louisiana culture as much as the bounty and quality of its restaurant cuisine and how its people have contributed to it.

That means smoked oysters from the ancient Natchez; the trinity (onions, celery, bell pepper) and the pope (garlic) from the Cajuns; rice and spices by way of Spain; couscous from Senegambians; okra from Africa; garden fare from the Germans; sausage, bread and cheese from the Italians. Creative kitchen cooks of the aristocratic Creoles with butter-based roux likely left the most enduring mark on Louisiana food.

Restaurants in this state are more than what we cook or sell; they speak to who we are. Operators know they’ve borne much of Louisiana’s shrunken economy, from limited capacity to downsized workforce. Comes now the feds, bent on raising wages to $15; restaurants can’t offset that with paycheck protection or loans; the former would be permanent, the latter passing. Fresh trouble looms.

The surest, most permanent way to help restaurants, though, is to limit, then defeat COVID-19. That would boost business, make pockets jingle, restore appetites. That would cure many things.