For years, as celebrated New York City restaurateurs Sean Josephs and Mani Dawes made visits to see Dawes’ mother in New Orleans, the idea of opening a restaurant in Dawes’ hometown was never far from their minds.
“There were a lot of runs around Audubon Park where we fantasized about leaving New York and moving here,” Josephs said. “I didn’t understand that if you marry someone from New Orleans, they’ll always bring you back.”
Sure enough, Josephs and Dawes are now planning a restaurant just a stone’s throw from her mother’s house and Audubon Park, anchoring a redevelopment already underway at the corner of Magazine Street and Nashville Avenue.
Dawes is the owner of Tía Pol, a tapas restaurant in Manhattan, and Josephs owns Char No. 4 in Brooklyn and Manhattan’s Maysville, which New York Times restaurant reviewer Pete Wells praised as a “confident restatement of the American tavern.”
“We want to open the kind of restaurant we’ve always opened in New York, which is a neighborhood restaurant,” Josephs said in a meeting with neighbors Monday night. While part of its clientele will come from all over, he said, “The basic idea is meant to serve the community.”
The as-yet-unnamed restaurant will be open all day, starting with a skeleton staff serving baked goods and coffee in the morning, followed by a casual lunch. The late afternoon might offer oysters and a beer, Josephs said, and in the evening, the menu will transition to casual fine dining. Like the New York restaurants, bourbon will remain an important conceptual focus.
“Bourbon is kind of the American drink, the American spirit,” Josephs said. “Both of my restaurants have a significant bourbon selection.”
The couple and their children have moved to a house in New Orleans near the restaurant, and Josephs is commuting a few days every other week back to New York, he said. They plan to keep all three restaurants there open, but he will spend even more time in New Orleans after their restaurant here opens.
The 89-seat restaurant will fit into the redevelopment by Butler Callahan Holdings of three former businesses on Magazine at Nashville — Rare Cuts, Vom Fass and Parcels and Post — into a single structure joined by breezeways. The former Rare Cuts will primarily serve as the restaurant’s dining room, with a few tables outside and in the breezeway, and the former Vom Fass will be the kitchen.
No tenant has been announced for the third building, but Josephs said it is not planned to be a restaurant — a retailer of some sort is more likely. The parking lot in the rear is being reconfigured to hold 17 spaces, of which the restaurant will have 11 at all hours and possibly the remaining six when the retailer is closed. The restaurant will stay open until 10:30 or 11 p.m. on weeknights, and midnight on weekends, though they may scale back the hours if necessary, Dawes said.
“We’re thrilled to be down here. We want to open a very special restaurant,” Dawes said. “It’s not about staying open all hours of the night.”
Josephs and Dawes shared their plans with an audience of about 50 neighbors Monday night as part of the city’s neighborhood-participation requirement for getting a conditional use to serve alcohol in the building. Reactions to the plans ranged from excitement — especially from those who had tried the couple’s offerings in New York — to concern about the impact on the neighborhood, particularly on parking.
Off-street parking is already extremely difficult to find, especially near Magazine, and can be brutal for residents without driveways, neighbors said. And if the couple moves on for some reason, said neighborhood resident Betsy Stout, the next tenant could be a large college bar.
“I was really excited when I heard a new little restaurant was going in there. I was thinking of a restaurant on the scale of Bistro Daisy or Martinique,” Stout said. “[But] The scale of this thing is very big from the get-go, and the fact that’s its open so late and it has a big liquor component.”
Kent Blackwell of the Burtheville Neighborhood Association — which led the fight several years ago against the Gabrielle restaurant’s proposed move to Henry Clay Avenue — asked if the couple had a “Plan B” if they couldn’t get the liquor license.
“Quite frankly, the scale is a lot bigger than most restaurants in the area,” Blackwell said.
Several members of the Audubon Riverside Neighborhood Association, however, defended the restaurant. Cindy Schupp, a Realtor and association board member, argued that being walking-distance from so much commercial activity is a primary reason people want to move to the neighborhood, causing the home values to rise so quickly.
“Everyone loves being close to these streets, Magazine Street, Oak Street, Freret Street, where they can walk,” Schupp said.
Tom Rey, another Audubon-Riverside board member, said that Butler Callahan already worked out the parking issues with the city before it began the redevelopment, and that they were open about their plans to put a restaurant on the corner. The restaurateurs, who are merely tenants, should not be held responsible for a parking problem that predates their plans, Rey said.
“There’s going to be a restaurant. Do you want this restaurant? Or do you want a Hooters?” Rey asked. “Let’s be fair to these two.”
Josephs and Dawes told worried neighbors that the restaurant may sound bigger on paper than it will be in reality, comparing it to Clancy’s or Lilette. Its 89 seats only equate to about 20 tables, some of which they said they hope will be filled by neighbors walking to see them. Part of the restaurant’s floor space will also be taken up with storage and office areas, they said, as they get used to working in a city where basements are impossible.
Restaurant employees, likewise, usually take the bus or streetcar or ride a bicycle to work, and the lot behind the building likely represents more parking than most nearby restaurants have, they said. Even so, they pledged to explore what else they can do to help with the parking situation.
“We signed the lease and we were told we had enough parking. It doesn’t mean it’s not our problem. I just didn’t come into this anticipating that this was an issue,” Josephs said. “It means we’re going to have to dig in and figure out how to fix a parking problem we didn’t know existed.”
They hope to receive the empty shell of the building from the developer around December, and best-case scenario would be an opening in spring of 2015.
“For us it was our dream, running around the park and trying to open a restaurant here,” Josephs said. “Obviously we didn’t anticipate the potential of the parking issue, but we still couldn’t be more excited to be here.”