Todd A. Price - September 2014
New Orleans—Nearly overnight, the Bywater neighborhood changed. Downriver from the French Quarter and wedged against the Mississippi, it was long ago colonized by edgy artists drawn by low rent and large, industrial spaces near the port. Now, Bywater has become the kind of ’hood where Solange Knowles shops for real estate and David Byrne vacations.
As often happens in New Orleans, restaurants are leading the transformation.
An early culinary pioneer was chef Michael Doyle, a veteran of Dante’s Kitchen, who opened Maurepas Foods in January 2012. Before Maurepas Foods, Bywater had funky dining, like heaping platters of fried seafood at Jack Dempsey’s, praline bacon for breakfast at Elizabeth’s Restaurant, or dinner under the stars on paper plates at the wine shop Bacchanal.
Maurepas Foods, however, with its farm-to-table philosophy and a style that’s half-Southern and half-globetrotting, introduced fine dining to Bywater.
Now, Maurepas Foods anchors a cluster of new businesses that are mostly restaurants, with a few boutiques and a yoga studio thrown in for variety.
Down the block is Booty’s Street Food, the definition of a hipster hangout with international street food, meticulously mixed cocktails, and a cash register that accepts bitcoins. Facing Booty’s is Oxalis, a sprawling and casually elegant whiskey-obsessed gastropub. Nearby is Pizza Delicious, a former pop-up that makes arguably the best pizza in New Orleans.
When chef Ian Schnoebelen and his wife, Laurie Casebonne, opened Mariza in Bywater in January 2013, they were well-established and nationally regarded for their contemporary bistro Iris in the French Quarter. Their star power, and the chic Italian-inspired eatery they created in a converted warehouse, pushed to another level the attention that obsessive eaters pay to Bywater.
“It would be egocentric to say that we’re changing the neighborhood by opening a restaurant,” Casebonne says. “Like a lot of restaurants, it’s a forum for the neighborhood.”
Schnoebelen and Casebonne have long lived in Bywater. And now, after they opted to close Iris last May, Mariza is the only place they work. It’s been said more than once that Bywater is becoming Brooklyn, which—depending on the source—is either boosterism or a critique. More than one longtime New Orleanian has noted that these new restaurants don’t make gumbo. Some artists and artisans have been pushed out. Yet others remain, like Monkey wid-a Fez’s Chip Martinson, husband of Bayona’s chef/owner Susan Spicer and the man responsible for the custom furniture at Donald Link and Ryan Prewitt’s Pêche Seafood Grill.
Doyle of Maurepas Foods does worry about the future of Bywater as a place to build restaurants. Once the neighborhood, filled mainly with historic, single-family homes, stops being fashionable, does it have the density to support all these eateries?
The eager entrepreneurs adding new places nearly weekly to eat and drink in Bywater don’t seem to share Doyle’s concern. The New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, the arts training center for secondary-age school children, which also has a culinary curriculum, just rolled out a food truck with a student-designed menu. On the far edge of Bywater, Sólo dispenses third wave espresso in the house’s raised basement. And at press time, Mission Chinese Food vet Tobias Womack was set to open Red’s Chinese with a menu inspired by Danny Bowien.
The cool kids will tell you that Bywater is the place to be. At the moment, it’s also the place in New Orleans to eat.