As mentioned last week, I’m these days helping some friends do the groundwork for a new bar and restaurant in the Warehouse District. With most of the heavy lifting accomplished, we’re now in the dusty work of arranging things in certain locations while the workers around us install wiring, do the plumbing, put up insulation and do a lot of sanding. LOTS of sanding. A simple walk through the kitchen can sometimes leave one looking somewhat Mt. St. Helenish.
Much of the discussion this week has focused on the menu. I think we’ve just completed our third refinement in as many weeks and, as per usual, none of us are completely happy with it. Some of us think we’ve gone a bit too high-brow, by either pricing out too many would-be customers and tourists with items that are too creative or otherwise pricey. On the other hand, given the location in a very high-rent area, some feel we don’t want to go too Joe Average because there would be no reason for Mr. and Ms. Foodie or those with an otherwise curious (and likely well-financed) palate to darken the door.
Within a few blocks, there are well-known places run by John Besh, Emeril Lagasse and Donald Link. On the other end of the spectrum, there are also several well-run spots with menus of a more generic nature. This new place has the experience and creativity to be competitive with either. The questions are, 1) what will our price points be and 2) (more importantly), how do we balance the two extremes?
I have a couple of standards. One of the most important issues for me is the kind of impression made by the menu in the window. If I happen to be walking by or, particularly, if I make the effort to actually go over there, is there anything on this posted on this menu that is going to make me want to step inside? What is appealingly unusual? Do they have something I can’t get anywhere else? Or, if a listed dish is somewhat easy to find, does the place appear to be one that can do it well enough for me to order it?
A few years ago, the place that is now Coquette (Magazine and Washington) was run by another outfit that posted a menu on the door. I walked by this door at least three times a week and l always checked the menu, which had two problems. First, the menu never changed. Second, the menu did not contain a single item I could not find at a dozen other places within a one-mile radius. I never ate there, largely because I saw this place trying to piggyback off too many other places.
Seems to me the only two ways to bring people in the door are to either do something attractively unusual and creative or to do a familiar item so well it can’t be challenged. I have to admit I was very dubious when Mahony’s opened up on Magazine several years ago. ANOTHER poboy joint? C’mon. But time and experience have proven me wrong. The offerings are so good and yet sometimes so unusual that the place works. It’s a very good balance with a time-tested standard.
Those of you who are familiar with what we did at J’anita’s know we often went against the grain or sometimes seemed to fabricate our menu from spare parts and baling wire. From a culinary standpoint, at least, it usually seemed to work. This is how I prefer to work, rightly or wrongly. But it can never be said our menu was dull.
I don’t have a lot of influence on this new menu – just some suggestions from time to time. But, ultimately, it won’t be the chef or the owner or the servers or the bartenders who dictate what’s on the menu. It will be those who venture inside the door and give their opinions. This is, fortunately, a city where one can usually rely on customers to know as much or more about food as the staff. If a place isn’t meeting the standards or tastes of the neighborhood, it won’t last very long.
This large raft of customer knowledge and experience is what makes the New Orleans culinary ride so much fun for those of us who do it for a living. We might not always appreciate the bluntness, but you can be damn sure we listen and (usually) adjust.
Craig Giesecke has been a broadcaster and journalist for over 30 years, including nearly two decades at the AP and UPI covering news, sports, politics, food and travel. He has been the owner of J’anita’s for five years, serving well-reviewed upscale bar food and other dishes. Comments are encouraged and welcomed.