The setting at Cafe Sbisa seems to conjure stories all on its own, between the paintings over the bar, the patina on the walls and the contours wending through its different rooms.
Alfred Singleton has his own story here, one that started in his early days in the business, long before he became Cafe Sbisa’s chef and co-owner.
Now, that story is resuming, after more than a year of uncertainty in the pandemic. Café Sbisa reopened Friday, starting with weekend hours only and plans to expand those over time.
Singleton sees Café Sbisa as a statement. It’s a showcase for what Creole cooking means to a chef who grew up in this city, learned the business from bottom to top and now adds his own signature to a cuisine entwined with his own identity.
“Food is who we are,” Singleton said. “We celebrate food in this city. Food is family, food is us and there’s just so much in Creole food to celebrate. That’s what we’re sharing with people when we invite them into this restaurant.”
Layered, melding flavors rule Singleton’s kitchen, from turtle soup and shrimp remoulade to the courtboullion, the trout Eugene with seafood-studded Champagne cream sauce, the salted caramel apple bread pudding and the steak with maître d’ butter (add fried oysters to that steak to really do it up).
To the chef, reopening now, with tourism down and conventions still missing, is a time to reinforce connections with locals as they start exploring their own city again, or introduce the restaurant to people who still might only know Café Sbisa from its earlier iterations. The menu was recalibrated to take the prices down a notch.
Cafe Sbisa has a history going back to 1899, when this old ship chandlery first became a restaurant. It continued through a succession of different owners and incarnations. By the late 1970s, it was known as a stylish, modern den set amid the hubbub of Decatur Street.
Today it has the distinction of being one of the few fine-dining restaurants in New Orleans with a Black chef at the helm as co-owner, at a time when issues of racial equity are up for new assessment around the business.
“To be from the city, to be an African American chef in this position, to know what I came up through, I’m still baffled sometimes that I’m here,” he said. “But I’m in this position for a reason. It’s the people I surrounded myself with, the people I develop relationships with.”
To Singleton, leadership in his moment means putting in the work to make a restaurant successful, being there to guide it and bringing others up with him.
“There are people who supported me through my career when I was working for other people that are here with me, together in this,” Singleton said. “They want to be a part of it and that means everything.”
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Café Sbisa exudes ambience. The main dining room is dominated by a large mahogany bar, over which hangs a three-panel painting by the renowned French Quarter artist George Dureau. A mezzanine seating area looks down into the main dining area, private dining rooms stretch across two more floors, balconies overlook Decatur Street and a courtyard in the back adds to the outdoor dining space.
But for many years, it seemed this timeless space might be lost to history. Following Hurricane Katrina, it had been stuck in on-again, off-again limbo, with different operators opening it for brief spans.
Today’s Café Sbisa emerged in 2016 after Singleton brought a proposal to Craig Napoli, a local businessman. Napoli owns the building and his family ran Café Sbisa from 1992 until 2005. Singleton himself worked there during part of that time. He started out as a prep cook in 2000 and rose to become chef before Hurricane Katrina shut it all down.
Singleton went on to become executive chef at Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse. To bring back Cafe Sbisa, Singleton and Napoli became partners, with Singleton leading the kitchen.
With a few years under its belt, Café Sbisa was rolling by the spring of 2020. The restaurant had earned regulars and people were booking private events and coming for personal celebrations.
The chef knows getting back to that level will take time, but he also has an ardent motivation to make it happen.
As Singleton built up the new Café Sbisa, he also built it into a family endeavor. The staff includes three of Singleton’s brothers, one sister, two nephews and plenty of other people he describes as folks who feel like family at this point.
“That keeps you on your feet, you feel a greater sense of responsibility not just for your own success but for theirs as well,” Singleton said. “It’s not just your livelihood riding on this, it’s theirs too.”
1011 Decatur St., 504-522-5565
Fri., Sat., 5-9 p.m., Sun. 10:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m.