The New New Orleans: On The Horizon, Even More Change

Ask anyone in New Orleans what they’d like to see happen in their city, and you’ll get a long list of suggestions. Some think crime is the top priority. Others want grocery stores. Some want top quality public schools, and others seek private schools that won’t cost an arm and a leg.

The New New Orleans has far more room to grow and evolve, and developers are already talking about opportunities beyond Freret Street and the Municipal Auditorium.

Two areas come up most often. One is O.C. Haley Boulevard, which sits in a traditionally black and Jewish neighborhood called Central City. The boulevard, named for civil rights activist Oretha Castle Haley, who founded the New Orleans chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, is being called The Next Freret. It has attracted a boxing gym that used to be part of Freret, and it will be the home of the new Southern Food and Beverage Museum.

The avenue boasts grand buildings, many still empty, with plenty of space for developers to launch major projects. It is attracting some of the same supporters and investors who helped Freret come back to life.

Another area that is garnering attention is St. Claude Avenue, which runs through the Bywater, a neighborhood that sits not far from the French Quarter and adjacent to the Marigny. It’s known for an art scene, dive bars and the makings of gentrification, although it remains undeniably funky.Beyond neighborhoods, however, what will guarantee the success of the New New Orleans is the people who commit to it. One of them is Alon Shaya, fast becoming recognized as one of the city’s rising star chefs.

Shaya runs Domenica, a rustic Italian restaurant launched by veteran chef John Besh’s restaurant group. It opened in 2009, steps from Canal Street in the Roosevelt Hotel, the former Fairmont Hotel that itself underwent a post-Katrina renovation. (This month, it was named New Orleans’ restaurant of the year by Eater NOLA.)

Shaya is about as non-native as a New Orleanian can get. He’s Israeli, and has worked everywhere from Philadelphia to Las Vegas to St. Louis. He wound up in New Orleans to work in a restaurant that Besh opened in Harrah’s Casino. Before Domenica opened, Shaya spent a year in Italy on his own dime, cooking and learning various Italian cuisines, before returning to set up his own kitchen.

The city has clearly worked its way into his heart. “When I came to New Orleans, I didn’t realize it was going to be my last stop,” Shaya says. “Katrina sealed the deal for me. I really felt like I could make a difference.”

With restaurants devastated by the storm, chefs set out across the city to cook for recovery workers. Shaya was part of a team cooking for the workers who were rebuilding Willie Mae’s Scotch House, the legendary restaurant in the city’s seventh ward known for its fried chicken.

The construction, which cost $200,000 and was paid for with private funds, was spearheaded by the Southern Foodways Association, which sent volunteers from across the country, led by chef John Currence of City Grocery in Oxford, Miss.

“I felt like I was needed for the first time,” Shaya says, “by somebody who didn’t know who I was.”

The restaurant business in New Orleans became part of the healing process for many residents left without power and waiting for their homes to be fixed. “What else is there to do? Absolutely nothing, except go to a restaurant,” Shaya says.

He saw a much smaller version play out this summer, when Hurricane Isaac tore through the city. On the Thursday after the storm, 850 customers poured into Domenica, which was one of the few places that had power and an ample supply of ingredients.

But as he has become part of New Orleans, Shaya is also bringing his own background to the food he serves its residents and visitors. Gradually, he’s revising some of his menu to include Middle Eastern touches, and he thinks customers are ready for the changes.

“Young chefs are going out and cooking what means something to them,” Shaya says. “People aren’t resting on their laurels any more. What would have been ambitious five years ago is now expected.”

In a sense, that describes the New New Orleans, too.

For more on the New New Orleans, click here.

[Photo credits: Micheline Maynard]