As the South Market District continues to take shape in the CBD, word has trickled out about restaurants planned for the multi-block residential and retail development one announcement at a time, including a Vietnamese eatery, a small plates lounge, a quick-serve pizzeria and a bakery and cafe from John Besh’s restaurant group.
Behind it all, however, there’s a blueprint for the mix of eateries slated to open here, and it’s one drawn to serve the changing downtown that developers envision as this and other nearby projects come to fruition.
“First and foremost, we’re trying to create an energetic downtown environment to live, and what’s better for creating that than great restaurants?” said Matt Schwartz, a principal with the Domain Cos., the firm developing the South Market District. “People are looking for variety, in food, in price point and in the way they use these places, like for lunch on a workday or after a game, and that’s what we think we can offer here.”
Downtown is seeing a surge of new restaurants (see more in this “What’s Cooking” column). The South Market District is bringing its own tide of them along in a coordinated fashion and with an eye toward making once-barren blocks more lively.
The full plan for the district includes 600 apartments, 170,000 square feet of retail space, a 1,300-car parking garage and a hotel, all in a four-block cluster centered on O’Keefe Avenue and Girod Street. Most of these sites were surface parking lots for years.
The first phase of the project is a building called the Paramount, which covers an entire block and will have some 200 apartments on its upper four floors and restaurants and retail on the first.
Restaurant plans announced for the Paramount over the fall include Magasin Kitchen, a spin-off from the Uptown Vietnamese restaurant Magasin; Ursa Major, a spot for global flavors worked into small plates from the owners of Booty’s Street Food in the Bywater; and the first Louisiana location of the national chain Blaze Pizza, which uses the fast-casual, assembly-line service format familiar from brands like Chipotle Mexican Grill. Last week brought the announcement of plans for Willa Jean Bakery, a café and bakery from the Besh Restaurant Group (see details for each in sidebar).
Schwartz said his firm is currently negotiating with two more restaurants for spaces in the Paramount, and he expects to announce these tenants later this year. The current crop should begin opening in the first quarter of 2015, he said.
Kurt Weigle, president and CEO of the Downtown Development District, said the project has the potential to create a new hub of activity and contribute to the “placemaking” underway around downtown.
“When we say placemaking, what we really mean is creating places that feel like real neighborhoods,” said Weigle. “I’m a fan of organic development, but when you have an opportunity with a blank slate and you can build in those elements of public infrastructure, of how your restaurants and retail relate to the street and the buildings around them and you can choose your tenants to fit that, you can see a difference pretty quickly.”
Schwartz said he and his partners at the Domain Cos. saw an opportunity in the CBD to develop a corridor of retail and apartments to connect the now-bustling Warehouse District with the sports entertainment district around the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The company worked with city and state officials to reconfigure Girod Street by the Paramount, reducing it from four lanes of traffic to two and using the space to widen the sidewalks here. This creates room for outdoor seating areas at the development’s restaurants, and the company also secured approval for these restaurants to operate as late as midnight on weeknights and 2 a.m. on weekends, as well as on holidays or after ticketed events at the Dome and Smoothie King Center. After setting this stage, Schwartz said, this company started evaluating how prospective restaurant concepts could put it to use.
“We wanted to find the type of restaurants to take advantage of the sidewalk, the later operating hours, for those times after events, but also be successful day in and day out, be part of the way people use their neighborhood,” he said.
That was a key consideration when planning Willa Jean Bakery, the new Besh concept going into the Paramount. Kelly Fields, executive pastry chef for the restaurant company, and Lisa White, pastry chef for its Domenica and Pizza Domenica restaurants, had discussed starting a project together for many years, and with momentum for more restaurants gathering downtown they felt the time was finally right. The two are partners in the project along with Besh.
“The space is perfect for the way we want it to feel, the development is coming along at the right time and the location is right where we want to be,” said Fields. “Restaurants bring more restaurants. There are so many exciting things happening in the culinary world here and to have this many of them coming together in one area is pretty amazing. I think it’s a game changer.”
Restaurants announced to date for the Paramount, 611 O’Keefe Ave. Each is slated to open in the first quarter of 2015. The Paramount’s developers expect to announce two more restaurant concepts later this year.
Blaze Pizza: Part of a national chain applying the fast-casual format to pizza.
Magasin Kitchen: An expansion of Uptown’s café Magasin, with counter service format for traditional and modern Vietnamese dishes.
Ursa Major: Named for the constellation, a second restaurant from the owners of Booty’s Street Food in the Bywater focusing on international small plates and cocktails.
Willa Jean Bakery: A bakery and café from the Besh Restaurant Group, led by pastry chefs Kelly Fields and Lisa White, serving breakfast, lunch, coffee and baked goods.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.