Martinique Bistro on Magazine Street closes but will reopen with new identity _lowres

Advocate file photo - Martinique Bistro closed this week after 20 years in business.

When Houma-based restaurateurs Kelly Barker and Cristiano Raffignone bought Martinique Bistro in 2003, they were mindful of its standing as an upscale neighborhood favorite and were careful not to make any drastic changes. They kept the restaurant’s name, a tribute to the original chef/owner’s home island in the French West Indies, and its fine-dining format.

But elsewhere, dynamics of the local dining scene were changing and would dictate the restaurant’s future. On Monday, the couple announced they have closed Martinique Bistro, ending a 20-year stretch for the dining destination at 5908 Magazine St.

“As the city has proven to us during the last year, fine dining has changed here,” Barker said. “More casual, less intimate restaurants are more popular.”

The owners had been looking for ways to change Martinique Bistro in response. But, eventually, they decided to lease the property to local chef Nick Lama, who plans to reopen the space as an Italian restaurant called Avo.

Lama, a New Orleans native, was previously chef de cuisine at Gautreau’s Restaurant, working under recent James Beard Award-winning chef Sue Zemanick.

Avo (an Italian word for “ancestor”) will depart from the familiar Creole-Italian template and instead specialize in flavors closer to the Italian source material, prepared with locally sourced ingredients. Lama described Avo as an upscale/casual restaurant and said he hopes to open by mid-March.

Martinique joins a litany of notable upscale New Orleans restaurants that have closed in the past year, including Meauxbar Bistro, One Restaurant & Lounge, Iris, Stella!, RioMar and Dominique’s on Magazine. In each case, new restaurants already have taken over those addresses or are under development to open soon, reflecting the hot market for restaurant real estate.

In addition to what they see as a shift toward more casual dining, Raffignone said the number of new restaurant openings nearby in recent years influenced the owners’ decision to close Martinique.

“We saw major changes here,” he said. “I hope the neighborhood won’t be too mad at us; we know it was a neighborhood institution. But we had to make a business decision.”

Martinique Bistro was opened originally by chef Hubert Sandot in 1994, when Magazine Street was just beginning to emerge as a corridor for shopping and dining. Its large, walled patio made it a perennial pick for top outdoor dining spots and romantic settings. Recently, Barker and Raffignone added a patio dining bar, and last year they invested in a retractable roof to make the patio an all-weather option.

Lama said he plans only minor renovations to the space for Avo.

Barker is a native of Houma, while Raffignone is from Liguria in northern Italy. In 2000, they opened Cristiano Ristorante, an upscale Italian restaurant in Houma, which they still run. In 2013, they bought another New Orleans restaurant, Dick & Jenny’s.

They have since renovated that Tchoupitoulas Street bistro to create more dining areas and have added a new Italian influence to its menu of contemporary Creole flavors, though Raffignone said they have no plans for any major changes at Dick & Jenny’s.

Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.