Owen Courrèges: The mysterious persecution of “Mystery Street”

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Dinner is served at the Uptowner in February during "Gabrielle in Purgatory," the first of a series of events showcasing the signature dishes of building owners Greg and Mary Sonnier.

The saga of the Uptowner just won’t die. The establishment itself is dead – the long-standing but unsuccessful reception hall has been out of business since before Hurricane Katrina. However, the fate of its building remains unclear, and the city remains intransigent as ever.

The basic story of the Uptowner is now well-known. Restaurateur Greg Sonnier vied to relocate Gabrielle, his former Mid-city eatery to the former location of the Uptowner at 428 Henry Clay Avenue. However, although the Uptowner had a license from the city to operate as a restaurant, it had a non-conforming use permit that only allowed it to operate as a reception hall.

Some local residents complained about Gabrielle opening in the Uptowner building because they feared it would cause noise, traffic and parking issues. Mr. Sonnier agreed to provide off-street parking via a valet service to mitigate these concerns, but ultimately his request for a variance was soundly rejected.

In denying his appeal, several council members added insult to injury by suggesting comically inappropriate alternative locations in their districts, as if high-end restaurants are clamoring to move to Central City or New Orleans East.

However, the story did not end. Recently, an outfit operating under the name “Mystery Street Productions” began promoting an invitation-only “weekly or biweekly supper club, to allow the people of NOLA to enjoy the ‘Good Eats’ of Gabrielle Restaurant once again.” Essentially, Mystery Street is holding private functions, just as the Uptowner did.

Alas, this did not mollify the city. Safety and Permits Director Paul May sent Mr. Sonnier a letter stating that “use of the premises for a supper club is an illegal use because a restaurant is not permitted at this location.” The letter threatens legal action if the Mystery Street events are not stopped.

Owen Courrèges

It is unclear exactly why the city is making this threat. The Uptowner was as a reception hall for private events. Mystery Street claims that it is distinct from Gabrielle or the Sonniers, and it meets irregularly once or twice per week. In terms of neighborhood impact, there’s no real difference between Mystery Street’s so-called “supper club” and the business previously done by the Uptowner (at least when it was an active business).

In any case, Mystery Street simply isn’t a restaurant. It isn’t maintaining regular days or hours and isn’t open to the general public. Strictly speaking, the zoning code doesn’t specifically deal with what Mystery Street is doing, although it is more analogous to a reception hall than a full-fledged restaurant.

Even if Mystery Street is arguably a restaurant, the zoning code must still be read in favor of allowing the disputed use. As the Louisiana Supreme Court noted in New Orleans v. Elms, 566 So. 2d 626, 632 (La. 1990), “[a] zoning ordinance, being in derogation of the rights of private ownership, must be construed, when subject to more than one reasonable interpretation, according to the interpretation which allows the least restricted use of the property.”

Admittedly, Mystery Street probably isn’t doing itself any favors by calling its events a “supper club,” which is defined in the zoning code as a “standard restaurant” with live entertainment. On the other hand, one would hope that the city actually bothered to investigate the nature of the use prior to threatening legal action.

The fact does remain that Mystery Street is not strictly operating as a reception facility, which falls outside the scope of the allowable non-conforming use.

Still, Mystery Street has a good argument as to why its use should be permitted as a strictly legal matter. Under Section 13.4.1 of the zoning code, the general rule for non-conforming use permits is that “a nonconforming use of a building may be changed to another nonconforming use of the same or more restrictive classification, provided that the new nonconforming use is not more intensive than the prior use.” The use of the Uptowner as a “reception facility” is no more intensive than its use for weekly or biweekly private dining events. As noted above, as a practical matter, they’re essentially the same thing.

Even if this were not the case, just saying “the law is the law” is hardly a satisfying response as to why the city is willing to commit scarce resources to closing down Mystery Street. There just doesn’t seem to be any point.

So why does the city have it out for the Sonniers and this Mystery Street venture? Your guess is as good as mine. If I didn’t know any better, I’d suspect ulterior motives, and if that’s the case, then there are bigger problems here than misguided and over-zealous zoning enforcement.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

10 thoughts on “Owen Courrèges: The mysterious persecution of “Mystery Street”

  1. “as if high-end restaurants are clamoring to move to Central City or New Orleans East.”

    This is the attitude that needs to stop, our city won’t be successful unless someone has the balls to move to an underserved population, this is the same reason retailers give when not moving to New Orleans. If the Sonniers moved to the Oretha Castle Haley corridor with a high end restaurant, you bet your ass that clientele will follow. Cafe Reconcile makes a killing every day, if theres a killing nearby who gives a fuck, GET SOME BALLS. Crime will stop if nicer establishments perpetuate in a down trodden area, its called gentrification and theres money to be made from it, if you’re BRAVE enough.

    • By all means locate a destination restaurant in these areas. Id say Central City has a possibility of it attracting restaurants there because of its location. At least more of a chance than New Orleans East or Algiers. The reality is these neighborhoods are not as easily accessible to the rest of the city.

  2. Vincent,

    This is the attitude that needs to stop, our city won’t be successful unless someone has the balls to move to an underserved population, this is the same reason retailers give when not moving to New Orleans. If the Sonniers moved to the Oretha Castle Haley corridor with a high end restaurant, you bet your ass that clientele will follow.

    I don’t think Central City is underserved by high-end restaurants. The truth is that high-end restaurants almost universally cling to affluent areas because that’s where their clientele is. Also, your typical restaurant patron does want to “follow” a restaurant, particular if that means following it into a high-crime area.

    I don’t think that restaurateurs are stupid. If there was money to be made by opening expensive restaurants on Oretha Castle Haley, they’d probably already be doing it. Cafe Reconcile is a nice restaurant and a valuable addition to the street, but 1) it’s not fine dining, and 2) it’s a non-profit that accepts donations.

    Finally, I would argue that New Orleans does not need for every part of the city to have fine dining in order to be successful. In even the most successful cities, every neighborhood is not well-suited for an establishment like Gabrielle. My gripe was with the council for rejecting Mr. Sonnier’s petition despite his concessions, and then proposing locations ridiculously ill-suited for Gabrielle as if they were being cooperative or helpful.

    • Maybe I’m the exception to the rule but if I hear a restaurant is good, I’m going to it, ghetto neighborhood or not, the fact that people go to cafe reconcile says a lot about it. Do people just go because its a feel good cause? It’s because of the food! The key to making neighborhoods turn around is investing in them, residential but especially commercial. Cafe reconcile is not fine dining yes, so we don’t need another casual lunch place, so Gabrielles would be a nice addition to a neighborhood that doesn’t have fine dining. As far as non-profit status, the last time I went I definitely had to pay my way and it was not whether or not I wanted to donate to the cause. The proximity to downtown makes it incredibly attractive to any restaurantaur who once again has balls and is willing to give it a chance. New Orleans east has an affluent population that has money to SPEND so theres no excuse there either.

  3. Nicely written Owen! It is shameful that the Sonniers are being persecuted this way. All of the wrangling on Henry Clay re: The Uptowner has to do with money and one smarmy silver-haired guy who wasn’t stroked the way he likes or expects, so he has railed against Greg & Mary, filling area residents’ heads with specious false tales. I recently heard the chef of the purported Monkey Hill Restaurant tell someone that, “Our restaurant is going to be the biggest, most important opening since Katrina.” Ha! Ain’t that some stuff…150 seats, no parking, but THAT’S ok with the neighborhood association and our City Council? Disgraceful. Pathetic. I believe one late resident said it best: “Fuck you you fucking fucks.” Not my words, but certainly my sentiment.

    • Great post Lorin! Couldn’t agree more. Bring on Pilates! Bring on the 18-wheelers for Whole Foods! Bring on Walgreens! Down the Sonniers! Who needs those pesky neighborhood restaurants anyway!

  4. One must wonder why there is no hue and cry from the city regarding the soon-to-open restaurant next door to Monkey Hill. Approved to open by the city without a shred of parking, it is sure to cause ” noise, traffic and parking issues” in exactly the same way.

  5. Greg Sonnier did not reach out to the neighborhood before they attempted to convert The Uptowner into Gabrielle. I believe that is the origin of the animosity against the restaurant. Greg is a wonderful Chef, but he does not understand local politics. The fact that City Hall got so involved is proof of this. The ploy of Mystery Street operating a Supper Club to circumvent the ruling only further ruffled feathers of those already miffed. Why didn’t they call it a Dinning Club? Again, it is due to political ineptness.
    This is childish behavior on both sides, but it is not mysterious.

    • frog,

      Greg Sonnier did not reach out to the neighborhood before they attempted to convert The Uptowner into Gabrielle. I believe that is the origin of the animosity against the restaurant. Greg is a wonderful Chef, but he does not understand local politics.

      This reflects a broken system. A person who wants to open a business should not have to be an expert in local politics. Opening up a business should not require the same skill sets as running for political office. Anyone who owns land and wants to open a business should be allowed to open it if the use is a reasonable one. We shouldn’t say “Oh, but he didn’t do enough glad-handing,” or, “Oh, but he didn’t grease enough palms.”

      It hinders commerce when we expect new businesses to run political campaigns for the privilege of operating. Again, this system is broken and has helped make the city poor and corrupt. New Orleans is experiencing a turn around and this isn’t helping.

      The ploy of Mystery Street operating a Supper Club to circumvent the ruling only further ruffled feathers of those already miffed. Why didn’t they call it a Dinning Club? Again, it is due to political ineptness.

      I agree that calling it a “supper club” was inept because the zoning code defines a supper club as a restaurant, as I mentioned in my column. On the other hand, publicly-available information makes clear the nature of the use, and it isn’t that of a traditional supper club. The onus was on the city to investigate before making legal threats.

      In any case, the Sonniers and Mystery Street should be allowed to be politically inept without consequence. They aren’t politicians or running for office. They shouldn’t have to be politically savvy. There is no reason why should make business owners, who are not political experts, navigate a political mine field to ply their trades. I want restaurants with good chefs, not good politicians.

      • I’m curious if anyone following this thread has attended any of the Sonniers’ dinner parties at The Uptowner. We sent Sabree Hill to “Gabrielle in Purgatory,” but she was there as a photojournalist, not as a food critic, and I wonder how the whole thing went from a diner’s perspective. I haven’t actually read any first-hand accounts yet.

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