Down the Hatch_lowres

Down The Hatch takes the bones of a well-liked local eatery and kicks it up a few notches.

Any restaurant tucked away in the Lower Garden District is going to be frequented by locals ... lots of locals. Down the Hatch (1921 Sophie Wright Place, 504-522-0909; aims to elevate the concept of the neighborhood restaurant by focusing on good food while catering to residents — keeping in mind their dogs, their taste for microbrew beers and their meatless diets.

  Owner Rene Jalice took over last year and made several changes to the longtime watering hole. The biggest improvement: clearing out, fixing up and opening the large courtyard area in back, effectively doubling the available space.

  Today, the restaurant no longer stops at the back door — now you can head down a narrow alleyway that opens into a large, meandering, walled-in brick patio filled with green plants and trees, bubbling fountains, outdoor temperature controls (fans for summer, heaters for winter), a tiki bar and two large-screen televisions.

  The back patio is now a primo spot for private parties, manager Melody Brown says, especially viewing parties, from the Super Bowl to the Oscars. "We had 30 bicyclists back there watching Oprah's interview with Lance Armstrong," Brown says. "That space is great for whatever you want to watch on TV."

  The patio has a separate entrance and separate bar. It can accommodate 150 people. (The number tops 200 for parties that also include the indoor restaurant.) When it's not used for private shindigs, the outdoor tables are a popular spot with neighborhood denizens, many of whom bring their mutts to relax in the dog-friendly environment.

  Though the new patio is the biggest change at the site since Jalice became owner, there are other new features as well. He redesigned the front of the house to expand the dining space; also, the restaurant became a gallery of sorts, with the walls filled with creations by local artists. Most are brightly painted signs by the artist Simon Hardeveld, whose studio is located nearby on Jackson Avenue.

  The bar got a facelift and now offers more beers and craft cocktails. The wide selection of draft beers includes local and regional microbrews such as seasonal Abita, LA-31 Biere Pale, NOLA Irish Channel Stout, Bayou Teche Courir de Mardi Gras and Parish Canebrake.

  "Our customers are mostly locals and specifically locals from right around here," Brown says. "So our beer selection is for them, and we're revamping the menu to suit what they want. We had so many customers who are vegetarians and vegans coming in and ordering the veggie burger time and again, and we realized we needed to give them more dishes to choose from."

  The updated menu shows a lot more Medi-terranean/ Middle Eastern options such as hummus and chicken or beef shawarma. The gyro nachos feature slow-roasted spiced lamb and beef with tomatoes, cheddar and mozzarella cheese over tortilla chips with onions, tahini and picante sauce.

  Positive feedback from customers has proved that the restaurant is headed in the right direction. "We really want to be good neighbors," Brown says. "The place where people around here can stop in and feel at home, eat and drink well, and then turn to for the next time they have 200 of their closest friends getting together."