As fight continues for New Orleans restaurants, 2020 showed what’s at stake

Ian McNulty: As fight continues for New Orleans restaurants, 2020 showed what’s at stake

Antoine’s Restaurant waiter Sterling Constant, 69, who has been working there for 53 years, prepares for a final dinner service before restaurants were ordered closed in the coronavirus crisis, March 16, 2020. When Antoine’s reopened six months later, Constant was again on the job.

Where would you have your last restaurant meal in New Orleans? That’s supposed to be a rhetorical question to tease out your true favorite. This year, we faced a very real version of it.

On one day in March all New Orleans restaurants said goodbye at once. The closing order was sweeping; the future prospects left to them were agonizingly unclear.

Me? I couldn’t pick one restaurant. Instead, I went to last call at my neighborhood pub, as bars were also ordered closed, and brooded over supper at home.

Swept by the significance and uncertainty of what was happening around us, I could not say I needed to see off this one particular restaurant before the unknown of the next day. I couldn’t even decide if that would be a fine restaurant or a neighborhood joint, a legacy restaurant or a rising talent.

As I thought about it, I realized we need them all.

We need the places that make us feel at home and the ones that make us feel special just to be walking through the doors.

We need innovative places that unveil new ideas and forge new relationships, and we need places that seem unchanging but feel recharged and refreshed every time we visit.

We need restaurants that together comprise not just a business sector, but a cultural realm that connects us to this place, its stories, our roles in them and what comes next.

If we ever needed a reminder of why that’s so valuable, the perils of the past year have made that case starkly clear.

In normal times, New Orleans people talk constantly about food and restaurants, and proudly proclaim how our communal obsession with them is one of things that makes New Orleans what it is.

This past year has put that all to the test.

Could New Orleans still be New Orleans with its vibrant restaurant scene stuck in a long, slow slog just to keep going? Could our passion survive a long-distance relationship of closures and limitations?

The answers are still unfolding, because while the year is coming to an end the crisis is far from over and may be reaching its harshest turn.

But we have seen what has helped many make it through and what could help them carry on.

The federal relief package in the spring was no panacea but it made an impact. Industry leaders have pleaded for another dose as the timeline for unfettered business stretches on. The latest deal wrung from Washington could provide some reprieve.

Restaurants have for months now shown us what mindful determination can do, and provided needed affirmation of what creativity and hospitality can render together, even —perhaps especially — in hard times.

And we have seen the difference even our own small efforts can make when restaurants are truly at the brink.

When restaurants could not do conventional business, New Orleans people met them more than halfway, bringing the restaurant experience into their homes, finding ways to step up for them.

We’ve seen people broaden the conversation and the voices around food, as old frameworks are reworked and as like minds connect.

When the community cried out in pain and anger that Black Lives Matter, many New Orleans people showed their support in Black-owned restaurants and collaborated across others, seeking solidarity at the table, the most natural meeting place in New Orleans.

We felt the heartache of losing some restaurants we thought would always endure, and also the hope as so many struggle ahead.

We’ve seen the way instincts kick into gear, despite radically changed circumstances. Restaurant people dealing with slow-motion calamity in their own lives stepped up again when sudden disasters struck their neighbors, down the street or across the state.

In 2021, we have to assume hardship and loss will continue to be part of whatever comes our way.

The past year has been more than exhausting. It has been dangerously draining. Despair and anger, division and derision are all waiting there when we feel tapped out or pushed too far.

And yet, if we look to New Orleans restaurants, these trials have also proven that a lot of what we believe about ourselves in easy times remains true when the chips are down.

Our restaurant people need us more than ever. I think we need them more now too. We need to be smart and flexible and creative and compassionate as we try to navigate whatever this undulating course brings us next. We’ve already seen that it’s worth the fight.