The New New Orleans: A Stroll Down Freret Street

Everyone who visits New Orleans has strolled through the French Quarter at least once (whether they remember or not). Many shoppers have walked some of the three miles of Magazine Street’s commercial zone, while football fans have made their way through the Central Business District en route to the Superdome.

But Hurricane Katrina created an opportunity for other parts of New Orleans to come into their own. One place that many visitors have yet to find is Freret Street, in Uptown New Orleans. And even some locals stay away, because of Freret’s checkered history – which merchants and restaurant owners are doing their best to obliterate.

Freret began as a commercial area for people who were left out of New Orleans’ most powerful social groups: the French Creoles, who governed old society, and the wealthy “English” traders and business owners, who dominated the CBD and built their homes in the Garden District. Instead, the neighborhood, named for brothers William and James Freret, became a refuge for Italian and Jewish residents, who shared the commercial district.

But population shifts took place in the 1950s, driving middle class residents to the suburbs, and by the 1980s, when bakery owner Bill Long was shot and killed in the doorway of his store, Freret was disintegrating.

Help came in 2001 when the National Trust for Historic Preservation adopted Freret Street under its Main Street program. Yet, the neighborhood took a body blow from Katrina, whose damage can still be seen, and its comeback never seemed farther away.

But seven years after the storm, Freret is a symbol of the New New Orleans, where a handful of business pioneers and long time stall warts provided the nucleus for its growth to take place. Bars, restaurants, businesses, and a monthly fair have popped up in a few short years, and the sounds of construction resonate as cars and pedestrians ply the bumpy street between Tulane and Loyola Universities.

“You could see the revolution happening with just a few places, and just a few pieces finally falling into place,” says Greg Ensslen, a property developer and New Jersey transplant who has lived in the neighborhood since 1984.

%Gallery-170747%The growth has happened primarily with support from locals, and some help from out of towners like Chip Apperson, a veteran restaurateur who came down from Memphis with his wife after the storm to restore a home in New Orleans’ Bywater neighborhood.

Eventually, he bought Long’s bakery and turned it into the family friendly High Hat Cafe. The menu is divided between Louisiana and Mississippi Delta specialties, with home made pies and heavenly fried chicken, and a bar that invites people to settle in for hours.

Still, Apperson says, “It took a while for people to think about coming to this part of town.”

He and other business owners credit one of New Orleans’ trendiest drinking establishments, Cure, for leading Freret Street’s resurgence. Housed in a century old fire station, Cure has become a destination bar that has landed on many of the country’s top-10 lists for its individually crafted artisan cocktails and breathtakingly romantic atmosphere.

Its owner, Neil Bodenheimer, and his business partners envisioned a place that would pay homage to the drinks that made New Orleans’ reputation and create new cocktails tailored to individual tastes.

Ensslen, who can tell you the history of every building in the commercial district, thought Bodenheimer was way ahead of himself when they first discussed the ambitious project in 2008. “I said, ‘Freret isn’t mature enough. Come back in five or six years,'” Ensslen recalls.

Bodenheimer didn’t listen, and Cure began a comeback for Freret that seems to have picked up even more steam in just the past year. “We are farther along in our evolution than we ever thought we’d be,” Ensslen says.

Now, post-Katrina businesses serving everything from pizza to po’boys vie for locations amid places like Freret Hardware and Freret Paint that were already neighborhood fixtures.

One place drawing nearly as much buzz as Cure is The Company Burger, which opened in August 2011, and has already drawn high profile visitors including food television host and writer Anthony Bourdain.

Its menu is deceptively simple: burgers, from beef to turkey and lamb, fries, and a few desserts including brownies made from owner Adam Biderman’s mother’s recipe. But the food is restaurant quality, turned out by highly skilled chefs pulled from other New Orleans establishments.

Biderman, who grew up in New Orleans, decided in 2010 that he wanted to sell burgers and wanted to do so on Freret. “The burger thing was here, and I knew I had to get open,” he said. He found his spot: a 6,400-square-foot day care center in a strip mall with 40 parking spaces, and a week later signed a deal.

His parents were taken aback, not least because the street’s reputation. “I wasn’t allowed to come to Freret Street,” he recalls. And, despite Cure’s presence, his parents and business partners asked, “Are you sure about Freret Street?”

Biderman was. In his original business plan, he estimated the burger joint would attract 200 customers a day. “Now we do 200 a day at lunch on a weekday,” he says. He sold out on his first three days in business, and there are often customers waiting to get in each day when The Company Burger opens.

But despite drawing chefs and locals, Biderman says The Company Burger and Freret, in general, are still not a destination for many visitors. Without a car, Freret isn’t all that easy to reach. The business district is several blocks from the St. Charles Avenue streetcar, with infrequent bus service. You may wait a few minutes or more for your taxi to arrive, although everyone says cab drivers are getting savvy to the activity.

Despite burgers and the hot dogs served at Dat Dog, some local business owners think the street is in danger of becoming overpriced, especially for the contractors who swing by the paint and hardware stores early in the day for supplies. There isn’t much retail, although there have been rumors a Trader Joe’s might open up nearby.

Biderman, though, sees “nothing but potential” for Freret, which he thinks is becoming its own brand. Even if tourists don’t find their way to the street, the New New Orleans will thrive regardless.

“People are aggressively taking back their own neighborhoods,” he says. “There’s a young, exciting energy among people who have decided to make their lives here.”

For more on the New New Orleans, click here.

[Photo credits: Micheline Maynard]