The food, a timeless presentation of French gourmet classics, is as savory as ever. The service is attentive and flawless. The dining rooms, freshly polished and filled with historical artifacts, promise a luxuriant meal. The veteran waiters are hard at work, as are many of the long-time cooks and kitchen workers.
Nearly everything at Antoine's Restaurant, one of the oldest and most renowned institutions in New Orleans, looks just the same as it did on Aug. 28, 2005, the day before Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Crescent City.
That is, as long as you don't look too hard.
The restaurant, it turns out, is hemorrhaging cash, losing nearly $5,000 every night that it swings open its heavy wooden front door. That puts the historic 166-year-old French Quarter icon, whose fortunes the Tribune has been following for much of the last year, on track to lose more than $1 million by the end of December if things don't soon improve.
Most of the restaurant's employees, behind the warm smiles they offer their customers, are worried about finding a permanent place to live, staying for the moment in camping trailers, temporary apartments or the carcasses of flooded homes they are struggling to repair.
And many of the tourists and conventioneers who have long accounted for more than 80 percent of Antoine's business are nowhere to be found.
One year after Katrina burst New Orleans' decrepit levees and flooded four-fifths of the city, driving its residents into exile across the rest of the United States, this place long known as the Big Easy is anything but.
The murder rate is rising, blight is spreading, rebuilding is stalled and suicides are on the increase.
Rot, weeds and tangled brush, no longer kept at bay by diligent homeowners, have colonized entire blocks.
In some ruined neighborhoods, the only humans in sight are the demolition crews, clad in white biohazard suits to protect them from the toxic houses they are tearing down.
Repair work on the 150 miles of levees and floodwalls that are supposed to protect the below-sea-level city from hurricanes won't be completed until 2010. Even then, the walls will not be high enough to protect against the worst Category 5 storms.
Just half of the 485,000 people who lived in New Orleans before the hurricane are estimated to have returned. And it often seems as if all of them, like the owners of Antoine's, are holding their breath, eagerly awaiting any sign that their wounded city can recover from one of the worst natural disasters to hit the U.S. in modern times.
"A year has gone by and most of New Orleans has been reclaimed by the jungle and it looks horrible," lamented Rick Blount, Antoine's CEO and the great-great grandson of the restaurant's founder. "If New Orleans does not grow, if there is no rosier future for this city, then I've made some very bad decisions in reopening this restaurant."
A year later, a little hope
Certainly not all the news in New Orleans is bleak.
The French Quarter, the Garden District and downtown New Orleans--the areas most familiar to tourists and visitors--were not heavily damaged by the hurricane and are largely back to normal. Repairs to the Superdome and the convention center, sites of some of the most wrenching post-Katrina misery where tens of thousands of flood victims huddled for days awaiting rescue, are nearly complete.
And the city's crucial convention business is looking up: After being forced to cancel all conventions from last September through March, convention center officials say 70 percent of traditional bookings will return in 2007 and 93 percent in 2008.
Meanwhile, water, gas and electric service have been restored to most of the city's neighborhoods, although outages and interruptions are frequent.
About half of the city's schools managed to reopen for the fall. And owners of flooded homes will soon start receiving checks for up to $150,000 to help them cover uninsured losses under a $4.6 billion federal reconstruction program that city and state officials hope will kick-start rebuilding efforts.
There's positive news at Antoine's as well.
Half of the restaurant's pre-Katrina staff of 132 employees are back at work, including nearly all of the veteran waiters, cooks and managers whose experience and institutional knowledge Blount deemed critical. Another 32 new employees have been hired.
Sales revenue in July, traditionally one of the restaurant's slowest months, was more than double what managers had projected, and most waiters report that their monthly income, from salaries and tips, is back to what it was before Katrina hit.
But the problem, for both the restaurant and the city, is how much further there is to go.
Dependence on local diners
Before Katrina, Antoine's was a behemoth, featuring 15 dining rooms that could seat more than 850 diners every night. But wind and rain from the hurricane caused more than $14 million in structural damage to the restaurant's historic buildings, forcing the closing of the main dining room and leaving only 400 available seats.
Just to break even, Antoine's needs to fill 260 of those chairs each evening. But the average daily customer count for the first seven months of the year was 186.
What's more, nearly all of those diners have been local customers, many of them well-heeled long-time patrons who come as much for the tradition as the food. But bluebloods are not a growth market in New Orleans at the moment, and while awaiting the return of the usual out-of-town expense-account clientele, Blount is marketing Antoine's to local doctors, lawyers and accountants--the kind of customers who won't balk at the restaurant's average $65-per-person tab.
That puts Antoine's into unaccustomed competition, however, against a host of trendier restaurants in an epicurean city still renowned, even after Katrina, for its food.
"We're just never going to be the venue where people will just stop by on their way home for a quick boiled chicken," said Blount. "You have to want to come to Antoine's."
Among the most worrisome developments in New Orleans for Blount and others in the tourism industry is the alarming resurgence of the city's notorious crime problems, fueled by a growing drug trade.
Despite having only half its previous population, the city suffered more than 80 murders through the end of the July, which translates to a murder rate of more than 60 per 100,000 residents, according to Peter Scharf, a sociologist and crime expert at the University of New Orleans.
That rate, if it holds through the end of the year, would rank New Orleans right back where it was before Katrina: as the nation's murder capital.
Although few of those crimes have occurred in the areas most frequented by visitors, tourism officials fear the negative perceptions--perceptions that were only reinforced when, earlier in the summer, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco heeded a plea for help from New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin and sent National Guard troops into the city to help patrol the streets.
`All you see is blight and ruin'
For Charles Daroca, who is rebuilding his 4,400-square-foot home in the middle-class Lakeview neighborhood where floodwaters rose 10 feet high, the concern about crime is overshadowed by another post-Katrina menace: blight.
When Daroca, the chief financial officer at Antoine's, started gutting and reconstructing the entire first floor of his house in January, he knew of 10 neighbors in a two-block area who were also planning to rebuild.
Now, the Darocas are living on their second floor while they work on their renovation, which is about three-quarters complete. But only one additional neighbor beyond the 10 has shown any signs of moving back in. In the absence of any comprehensive planning effort by the city, Daroca's once-attractive block, like hundreds of others across the city, now suffers what urban planners call the "jack o'lantern effect": rows of rotting, abandoned houses interrupted by occasional inhabited homes, resembling the ragged teeth of a hollowed-out Halloween pumpkin.
"You stand here with your coffee in the morning and look out the window and all you see is blight and ruin," said Jodee Daroca, Charles' wife, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood. "It's going to take a lot longer than we thought for the neighborhood to come back. But it will. It has to."
(This piece originally ran on Aug. 22, 2006)