Anyone interested in New Orleans restaurants knows there are a lot of them. But how many?

A new analysis by The Advocate found 1,216 in Orleans Parish.

This includes 605 full-service restaurants, 476 counter-service or fast-food eateries and 135 bars serving food from their own kitchens.

That’s up from 984 total restaurants in August 2005, just before Hurricane Katrina, for a net gain of 232 restaurants in the city, or almost 24 percent.

For full-service restaurants only, the change is even more striking. There are 152 more restaurants in this category today than before Katrina, for a rise of more than 33 percent. 

These numbers are based on an analysis of food safety licenses from the state. The analysis was guided by one goal: to measure the competitive landscape for New Orleans restaurants.

The result sets a benchmark for how the ranks of New Orleans eateries have changed over time and gives a numerical basis for measuring what restaurants are up against in the local market.

The number includes a wide range of establishments, but only those in the city of New Orleans itself, not the suburbs. This parameter was chosen to focus on the market that has generated the most discussion about restaurant industry changes and competition in recent years. It is also the market that is most entwined with the local tourism economy.

For years, the rising number of New Orleans restaurants has been part of practically every discussion of the local dining scene, inspiring both wonder at how it continues and anxiety over where it might lead.

The constant parade of new openings has brought a wide range of new concepts, flavors and talent. But the steady beat of closures, from recent ventures to old favorites, is often blamed on the rising number of competitors.

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Freret Street in New Orleans has become a popular stretch for casual dining, with restaurants and bars lining its blocks.

The discussion, however, has lacked a reliable count of the actual number of eateries operating in the city. There are differing interpretations of what constitutes a restaurant and different ways to define the New Orleans market.

State data on food safety licenses provide the most comprehensive starting point for analysis. These licenses are required for any business serving food, and the data also show end dates, when businesses close.

However, the raw data are far too comprehensive to provide a useful measure of the competitive landscape for New Orleans restaurants. Food safety licenses are also issued to schools and churches, day care centers, hospitals and nursing homes, sports stadiums and even American Legion halls. The licenses make no distinction between those examples and your favorite restaurant or the newest franchisee.

The Advocate’s number includes full-service restaurants, where customers are served by a waitstaff; counter-service restaurants, where customers order at a counter, from po-boy shops to fast-food giants; and bars that serve food through their own licensed kitchens.

It does not include pop-ups, food trucks and catering operations or grocery stores or gas stations. Even though such establishments do furnish meals — from their take-out delis, say — for the purposes of this analysis we did not consider them part of the competitive landscape for restaurants because they serve a different niche.

To calculate its figures, The Advocate obtained state data on food safety licenses going back to 2002 and analyzed each entry. Sifting this data set through the lens of New Orleans restaurant competition is necessarily a subjective task. The analysis would be difficult to accomplish through automation and without local context.

For instance, on a database Dat’s Grocery and La Petite Grocery, both on Magazine Street, might look like they belong in the same category. But the former is a corner store that was torn down earlier this year; the latter is a highly acclaimed fine-dining destination.

Big Cat sounds like it could be a hip modern eatery; in fact, it's an Exxon station in New Orleans East.

Calculating The Advocate’s number was not just a matter of counting, then, but a process of individual evaluation, drawing on real estate research, state business filings, fact-checking phone calls and a longtime familiarity with the New Orleans restaurant sector.

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A bustling stretch of outdoor dining along Magazine Street in New Orleans, Friday, June 15, 2018. The city has witnessed a steady rise in the number of restaurants in recent years.

For many years, New Orleans tourism officials and other industry watchers have often pointed to a tally maintained by food writer and radio host Tom Fitzmorris.

This count, however, excludes many types of restaurants, such as fast-food outlets and chains, and takes in a multi-parish area from St. Bernard to St. Tammany and the River Parishes. By his criteria, Fitzmorris currently counts 2,014 restaurants, up from 809 before Katrina. 

The Advocate’s count of 605 restaurants in the full-service category corresponds closely with an independent analysis conducted by the New Orleans Data Center. This research group found 564 full-service restaurants in 2017, based on its own research of commercial data, up from 480 in 2012.

The Advocate’s analysis uses more recent data, as of May 2018. It also goes further by adding counter-service and fast-food eateries and bars with food, since these more casual options are an increasingly important part of the competitive picture for New Orleans dining.

Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.