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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

New Orleans In the Time of Corona

July 1, 2020

A few months after Hurricane Katrina my wife and I were in New Orleans. For the most part, restaurants were still closed. Armed military were stationed in Jackson Square. The city was as quiet as I’ve ever seen it. It was eerie. My wife and I had driven down for the evening on one of those trips we used to take just to get out of town for a few minutes.

That night we ate dinner at K-Paul’s. I knew it was going to be a special evening because Paul Prudhomme was posted up at the front door greeting his guests. I hadn’t seen him in the restaurant in years.

I was a regular at K-Paul’s in the early 1980s. By the late 1980s and early 1990s so many new restaurants were opening up, I had put K-Paul’s on the back burner. But sometime in the early 2000s I rediscovered it and was impressed by what a good operation it still was, and a little remorseful that I had been distracted by the new shiny things and missing out on such good food all of those years.

Prudhomme and I sat and visited for a few minutes. Our discussion turned— as it usually did— to stocks. Chef Paul Prudhomme was a master of stocks. I always asked him, “What is it that differentiates your food from others?” He always had the same answer, “Stock.” To this day, I have still never had a better Shrimp Creole than the one I ate at K-Paul’s one Saturday afternoon in the late 1990s.

That evening in 2005, my wife and I were seated in the small dining room downstairs. Midway through our meal, a second line led by Prudhomme weaved its way through the dining room. Everyone was waving their napkins in the air and traditional New Orleans style. It was a dining experience I will never forget. In that moment it felt like “New Orleans” and I knew the city would come back even better than before.

Within a few years there were twice the number of restaurants post-Katrina as there were before the levies broke. The city was back.

I’ve been thinking about that evening a lot lately as I’ve been down to New Orleans two out of the past three weekends. This global pandemic has once again changed the city like it has changed my city, and like it has changed every other city, not only in America but, all over the world. I’m worried that the comeback after this shutdown might be even harder than the comeback after Hurricane Katrina.

Several of my standby restaurants and go-to places have shuttered their doors forever. Others have yet to reopen, still, others are open but in a very limited fashion.

Institutions such as the Camellia Grill are dark. New Orleans Cake and Bakery which is one of my go-to breakfast joints around the corner from our apartment has permanently closed. Several other restaurants in our neighborhood will not reopen. My friend Frank Brigtsen has yet to reopen. He’ll be back, but it won’t be any time soon.

New Orleans is important— not only to the culture and quality of life in this region but to the entire country.

Here’s a list of my go-to restaurants in New Orleans that are currently open and operating in some capacity.

La Boulangerie
This is my go-to bakery almost every morning. The ordering and table delivery processes have changed, but we’ve all changed in some fashion. The pastries are still just as good as any I have eaten in France.

Willa Jean
This is my other go-to breakfast spot. It’s typically packed. Last week, there was barely anyone in the dining room. Again, the food was as good as always. The Sunday morning Pecan Sticky Buns, alone, are worth a drive to the city.

Velvet Cactus
I have been on a Mexican kick lately. There’s a reason for it. I’ll explain in a forthcoming column. We’ve visited this busy Lakeview joint several times during this crisis and each time it has been spot-on.

El Gato Negro
Speaking of Mexican joints, this is probably our favorite in town. We go to the one across from the French Market. It’s a small space and so there are a very limited number of tables during this slow road back. The food is excellent.

Johnny Sanchez
To complete the Mexican-restaurant trifecta, we re-visited Johnny Sanchez this past weekend. An earlier visit a few years ago had left me less-than-impressed. After this most recent meal, I assumed I must have hit them on an off day on that previous visit. This dinner was excellent. I will definitely return, and often.

La Petite Grocery
I feel for Justin Devillier. His new cookbook had just been released a few weeks before the pandemic hit. I can relate. One of my books was released two days after Hurricane Katrina blew through this part of the world. La Petite Grocery is one of those restaurants that never disappoints. Ever. The service, food, and atmosphere are always impeccable. Devillier has excellent “touch” and a superb palate.

Susan Spicer’s casual concept located in an old police station on the edge of Mid-City is open. I just ate the absolute best barbecue shrimp I’ve ever eaten in my life there last week. Seriously, it is the gold standard by which all other barbeque shrimp dishes should be judged from now on.

Doris Metropolitan
This is my favorite steakhouse in the city. I have yet to visit since it has reopened, but I am glad they’re back. It’s next on my list.

Just before the shutdown in March I had one of the best bowls of gumbo I have ever eaten in Herbsaint. A return visit is also on my to-do list in the coming weeks.

Paladar 511
I have probably eaten here more than any other restaurant over the past several years. It’s in our building and it is always good. They stayed open during the shutdown and served curbside and delivery. The dining room is now open under the current restrictions and regulations. The food and service are as good as they have always been.

Restaurant August
For the past 20 years this has consistently been my favorite fine dining restaurant in the entire city. Nothing has happened to change that during this pandemic.


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