From the window of Sal’s Sno-balls, Steven Bel sees just about every facet of life in his Old Metairie neighborhood. These days, that includes some unmistakable signs of the booming restaurant scene around Metairie Road.
“It’s the takeout boxes,” said Bel, whose stand dates to 1959. “People are coming here after dinner more. Sometimes you look out and they’re all carrying boxes from wherever they just left.”
Metairie Road, the winding, three-mile route from the Orleans-Jefferson Parish line west through the neighborhoods of Old Metairie, has always had its local eateries. Recently, however, a quickening pace of new openings has made it one of the area’s hottest restaurant rows.
It’s part of a larger trend of redevelopment along Metairie Road, spurred by recent zoning changes and playing out as a mixture of new construction, renovation and new businesses rejuvenating old spaces. Food has been in the forefront.
Eight new eateries have opened along Metairie Road since 2017, and several more are planned for early 2019.
Metairie Road has long been a commercial strip, and restaurants have always been part of its mix of businesses. Recently, however, there has b…
Dial back a few more years, and the road has seen a wave of additions. New concepts like Blue Line Sandwich Co. and expansions from local names like Rock-n-Sake and City Greens have joined the familiar ranks of the Galley Seafood Restaurant and Mark Twain's Pizza, Byblos and Taj Mahal along the stretch.
Food is also the focal point of the monthly Farmers Arts Metairie Market that began on Metairie Road this spring, and it’s the draw for a new neighborhood festival, the Muffuletta Fest, now held each fall just off the main drag.
New this month is Reveillon on the Ridge, a holiday-themed program of happenings that range from family events in Bayou Metairie Park to specials in nearby restaurants.
The changes can be read as part of the broader restaurant boom across the New Orleans area. But along Metairie Road in particular, it’s also in sync with a coordinated civic push to burnish the community’s cultural identity.
“I think an important part of what those restaurants do is continue to build a feeling that this is a real community,” said Jennifer Van Vrancken, the Jefferson Parish Council member who represents the area. “When you can eat, play and live in the same area, that’s part of being a community.”
Edgar Caro and Antonio Mata have felt the impact of that community in their dining rooms. It’s what spurred them to double down on Old Metairie, opening two restaurants on the same block.
Brasa, a South American steakhouse based on the traditions of Caro’s native Colombia, opened in June 2017, taking over the former Chateau du Lac bistro. Zocalo, a regional Mexican restaurant, opened in the former Vega Tapas location just two doors away, and less than a year after Brasa debuted.
Caro said that although he was initially nervous about expanding too quickly, the response from the neighborhood sealed the deal.
“It was a little nerve-wracking; I didn’t know if we were ready,” he said. “But people were so happy that we were there. It built momentum for us; that’s what gave us the confidence to do something else here.”
Caro has a unique perspective on the dynamics of a restaurant row from the other eateries he runs on Magazine Street.
“On Metairie Road, we don’t get the tourists or the students you get on Magazine Street,” he said. “But here we have a platform for locals who love to eat and want more options near home. It's not just people from Old Metairie; it's coming from a larger part of Metairie too.
"If we keep investing in the area, not just for restaurants, but stores, places for kids, then this becomes a place where you can make a day out of it.”
Reviving the ridge
That message resonates for members of the Old Metairie Garden Club, a civic group that board member Maureen Brennan McConnell dryly describes as “a partying club with a gardening habit.” The club, however, has been busy since its start in 2017.
The group created the farmers market, which draws a mix of vendors offering farm-fresh food, prepared foods, and arts and crafts.
Reveillon on the Ridge, named for the high ground on which Metairie Road is built, was conceived as another idea to rally the community around events and support local businesses, including restaurants.
“We have a lovely area here, and we realize we’re very lucky to live here,” said McConnell, who is the producer of Reveillon on the Ridge. “But what we don’t have, like Uptown, is a gelled, solidified identity. We want to get in touch with our roots and build that cultural identity.”
An important piece of the framework for what Metairie Road is now witnessing came from a revamp of zoning rules begun by Jefferson Parish officials in 2015.
Officially called a "commercial parkway pedestrian overlay," the changes apply to new construction or major renovation. Developers are required to situate buildings close to the street; parking lots in front of them are prohibited.
Van Vrancken, who pushed for the changes, said the aim was to discourage big-box retail and encourage small businesses, including restaurants, to give Metairie Road a more vivacious feel.
Fat Boy's Pizza was designed along those new lines. It's slated to open in January in a new building at 2565 Metairie Road with an umbrella-lined patio fronting the street.
The calling card for Fat Boy’s Pizza will be New York-style pizza of eye-popping size, served by the slice from pies measuring 30 inches across. But Gabe Corchiani, the local businessman and former University of New Orleans basketball star behind the project, said the plans here are also guided by a more down-to-earth reading of the neighborhood’s needs.
“We wanted to make a casual, family-friendly spot for quick meals,” said Corchiani. “If your kids have a baseball game, where are you taking them afterward? We wanted to bring an option to the neighborhood that wasn’t fast food.”
Amid all the new interest, however, some question marks remain, including two big ones within sight of each other: a possible expansion for Oak Oven, the popular Italian eatery in Harahan, and the future of the former Barreca’s Restaurant property.
Neighbors have been talking since 2017 about Oak Oven’s plans to develop a new restaurant at 2918 Metairie Road, in a stately center-hall cottage that was previously the Garden Gates home and garden center.
Thomas Macaluso, proprietor of Oak Oven, said plans are in hand to turn the historic building into a restaurant and dining patio. But he said an issue with financing is holding up the project, and until that’s resolved, he can’t predict an opening date.
Just down the street, the former Barreca’s at 3100 Metairie Road was purchased in 2016 by Creole Cuisine Restaurant Concepts, a New Orleans company that operates a long roster of local restaurants and bars. In 2017, the company announced plans to develop a seafood restaurant here, but the property remains idle. A representative for Creole Cuisine said there are no plans set for the property now.
Other nearby properties have not stayed vacant long, including restaurants that have rapidly found new life.
When Ralph Brennan’s company announced it would close Café B after seven years on Metairie Road, the Ruby Slipper Café snapped it up to open a new brunch spot. It’s scheduled to open in the spring with a menu of Southern and New Orleans flavors.
“We talk to our customers, and a lot of them at several of our locations come in from Metairie and Old Metairie,” said Jennifer Weishaupt, co-founder of the Ruby Slipper, which has locations around New Orleans. “We’re very particular about the right space, the right building, and we’re excited to be able to open here.”
Some of the development along Metairie Road has proven contentious, especially plans for a six-story Old Metairie Condominiums project.
Van Vrancken, however, said that all she hears from residents about the neighborhood restaurant expansion have been questions about what might come next.
“Consistently what I’ve heard is enthusiasm from people who are delighted they can go right nearby and find more restaurants,” she said. “What they’re asking me is when they’ll get more.”