Zagat Reviews Post-Katrina New Orleans Tim Zagat, founder and CEO of Zagat Survey, talks about the publisher's new guide to New Orleans restaurants in the aftermath of Katrina. He says while there are significant changes in the food service industry, some old standbys have come back stronger.
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Zagat Reviews Post-Katrina New Orleans

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Zagat Reviews Post-Katrina New Orleans

Zagat Reviews Post-Katrina New Orleans

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NEAL CONAN, host:

People head to New Orleans for culture, for Mardi Gras, and of course for the food. Whether it's Creole or Cajun, French or Italian, restaurants in New Orleans have steadily made a comeback since Hurricane Katrina. In January, Zagat Survey released its first New Orleans guidebook since the storm, meaning diners are coming back, too.

If you're one of them, give us a call. What's the dining scene like in New Orleans now? Do you have a favorite new restaurant there, or an old favorite, or maybe one you're curious about what happened to it? Our number, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. You can send us e-mail: talk@npr.org.

And joining us to talk about wining and dining in New Orleans is Tim Zagat, the CEO and founder of Zagat Survey. He joins us from our bureau in New York. Thanks very much for coming in today.

Mr. TIM ZAGAT (CEO and founder, Zagat Survey): Very pleased to do so.

CONAN: And I have to begin by asking you about the pronunciation of your name. Everybody seems to pronounce it differently. Did I get it right?

Mr. ZAGAT: Zagat like "The Cat in the Hat," but it doesn't matter, as long as you buy the book.

CONAN: Okay, Zagat. Okay. It reminds me, there was - the Earl of Derby was once at the Kentucky Derby. He was asked: How is it properly pronounced? And he said, it doesn't matter, but the hat's a bowler.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Anyway, based on your survey, is it clear people are starting to go out to eat more often in New Orleans?

Mr. ZAGAT: The fact is that 83 percent of locals are eating out at least as much as they did before Katrina. There is some falloff because half the city has been destroyed. But the parts of the city which most people are familiar with - the French Quarter, downtown area and the uptown - are very much back. Almost all the major restaurants are open again.

If you went down there, you would find a city that was very much like the city that you knew, unless you went off into the areas that are devastated. There it's like "A Tale of Two Cities." You could not imagine the area that was devastated, how badly it was destroyed, and it is not being fixed.

CONAN: Are there famous great restaurants that were casualties of Hurricane Katrina?

Mr. ZAGAT: There were some. The original Ruth's Chris, the steakhouse chain, was down there, but there's another branch of the steakhouse chain that is open again. Most of the restaurants that you would recognize as important in the history of New Orleans dining are back in business. Very, very few of the more important restaurants have been lost. The thing is, we're really - this guide covers everything besides restaurants.

CONAN: Sure.

Mr. ZAGAT: And the message that we have is that it's one of these times when you can do good by feeling good. You can go down there and spend some money, and that's probably the best way anybody can help New Orleans. It's not worth complaining about whether the mayor, or the governor, or the president didn't do their job right.

We each can do our own thing by going down there and actually having a good time. And by going into the areas that are devastated, that too is an education, which people really - I was head of tourism in New York, for example, at 9/11, and so many hundreds of thousands of people came to see the site of the World Trade Center. It's the same kind of thing. People have to see it to believe it, and then they can go back and ask their congressman why this hasn't been fixed.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from David in Sacramento. I lived in the Lakeview section of New Orleans. I lost my house and now live in Sacramento. I had an expensive Italian bike. The owner of The Pelican Club collects bikes, and just before I left I traded the rusted bike for a meal for my family at The Pelican Club. The food and service were great. I will always remember the meal and the bike. The seafood martini and the goat cheese salad were wonderful. I had the Louisiana cioppino. So is The Pelican Club still going strong?

Mr. ZAGAT: The Pelican Club is, and it gets a 26 on a scale of 30 for its food, which is really, really good. And for its d├ęcor 24, and service 23. The big problem down there is service, because so many of the people who worked in the restaurants and worked in the hotels lived in the areas that were devastated and they are now living in Houston and Atlanta and everywhere else. And that's one of the big problems the city has is bringing back people who were formerly the backbone of the city's labor force.

CONAN: We're talking with Tim Zagat, the CEO and founder of the Zagat Survey. If you'd like to join our conversation - what restaurants remind you most of New Orleans? What restaurants have you been to since Katrina? 800-989-8255. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get a caller on the line, and this is - go to Tom(ph), Tom's with us from San Francisco.

TOM (Caller): Hi, yeah. There was a terrific local chef here, Donald Link, who moved back home to New Orleans several years ago. He had a restaurant called Herbsaint, and I'm just wondering if he's back in business.

CONAN: Tim Zagat is thumbing through his guide. I can hear him.

Mr. ZAGAT: I am indeed. I think it is back in business. And yes, it's a very good restaurant: 27 for food on a scale of 30. In top form post-Katrina, the kitchen at this warehouse-district winner turns out stellar, new American French fare with a Southern twist and a touch of whimsy thanks to truly talented chef Donald Link. Its chic dining room is both casual and electric, energized by enticing cocktails, a wonderful wine list and smart service. In sum, another home run from co-owner Susan Spicer. I'd say that's about as good as you can get in the way of our ratings.

CONAN: And I have to point out, Tim, that this is not your review, this is based on reviews of your readers and this restaurants' customers.

Mr. ZAGAT: That's right. It's based on 3,600-plus New Orleanians. And the one thing I just keep on trying to say is I've been down there recently, and you can learn, one, this city is ripe and ready and wants people to come. That's what their primary business is, tourism, and they need you.

The second part of it is you really have got to see the devastation to begin to understand it. Because you can go for mile after mile after mile, and I think that you can sit around complaining about the way the government, whatever level, has handled this, and they probably all have handled it badly, but you have a chance to do something yourself by going.

CONAN: Tim, thanks for the call. Here's an e-mail we got from Eric(ph) in - I'm not sure where Eric is, but. Does Mother's still exist? It was the first place that I ever had grits that I enjoyed and - don't worry, Tim, because I can testify as to this one. Yes, Mother's did survive, and the grits there were wonderful. We ate there when we were down there last year for TALK OF THE NATION last June.

And I was impressed also that the prices at Mother's had not changed. And Tim Zagat, is that true generally in New Orleans?

Mr. ZAGAT: Actually, yes. The - you would have thought prices would go up, but they haven't. And New Orleans is the second-cheapest city in the country, and we cover 45 cities. The national average meal is $32.86. New Orleans sits around $26, so it's substantially less than what you would pay for a meal elsewhere.

CONAN: And does that include alcohol in that average price?

Mr. ZAGAT: It does not include drinks. That you have to worry about on your own. It depends what you want to drink. New Orleans, of course, is - we've got a lot of nightlife places in this guide as well. The - you know, talking about Mother's, it's hard to spend $15 at Mother's, and it's one of the great special places that - you never really can believe Mother's unless you've been there.

CONAN: It's easy to spend the $15, just hard to eat everything they give you for $15.

Mr. ZAGAT: That's absolutely right. I remember the first time I went there years ago, and they said - I was going to get debris. And I said what is debris? And it's the last pieces of the ham and the ham gravy, and it's delicious when mixed with muffins and things.

CONAN: I asked the same question and got the same answer. Yum, I think is it. Let's see if we can get one last caller in. This is Ben(ph). Ben's with us from New York City.

BEN (Caller): Yeah, hi. I had the good fortune of eating at Mother's about 10 years ago, when I was invited down to the jazz festival there. But I was curious about two neighborhood restaurants that I was taken to by a native there. One was called Liuzza's, L-I-U-Z-Z-A-S, and the other one was Carmine's. I believe Liuzza's was in the mid-city area, and Carmine's was just south of a levy in the waterfront area, or just south of Lake Pontchartrain. Could you comment on how those restaurants came through Katrina?

CONAN: And were - go ahead.

Mr. ZAGAT: They both are open, and I'm glad to tell you that. They are both open now.

BEN: Fantastic.

CONAN: Okay, Ben - and you're planning to go back to New Orleans when, Ben?

BEN: I'd like to someday again. It's been quite a while, like I said, over 10 years. But the experience was extraordinary. The food was just unbelievable.

CONAN: Okay, Ben. Thanks very much for the call, appreciate it. And Tim Zagat, thank you very much for being with us.

Mr. ZAGAT: Thank you.

CONAN: Tim Zagat, CEO and founder of the Zagat Survey. He joined us from our bureau in New York. The 2007 Zagat Survey, The Best of New Orleans, is on the shelves now. And at our Web site, you can read about some of the New Orleans restaurants that have defied the odds by re-opening and some that haven't. That's at npr.org/talk.

And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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