Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Nobody actually eats there

That was fast.    
Bywater restaurant Cafe Henri (800 Louisa St.)  will close, the owners announced Monday.

The announcement was made on the restaurant’s Facebook page by co-owner Neal Bodenheimer and comes a little more than a year after the restaurant opened.

The Cure & Co. team launched the restaurant as a family-friendly neighborhood joint with chef Jason Klutts at the helm. But after weathering a particularly slow summer, the owners shifted course, debuting a more upscale cocktail and wine selection, and hiring Chicago chef Alfredo Nogueira who revamped the restaurant’s menu.

In the end, they didn't find a workable plan for the spot.
I'm tempted to type some pithy comment about how time flies these days. But I'm more concerned that time may not exist anymore on this post-post-post-modern plane of reality we've entered.  What is happening anymore? Where are we? When are we? It can't be The Future because that already came and went.

It seems like only yesterday (whatever that means) that the corner of Louisa and Dauphine was absorbed into the higher dimensions when in that spot was born the "blogstaurant."  
Booty’s is a project from Nick Vivion and Kevin Farrell, partners who recently moved here from Seattle and now live above their future restaurant. They also run a gay-themed news and culture Web site called Unicorn Booty, which partially explains their restaurant’s name. Their global menu is also part of it.

“It’s tied to the pirate history of New Orleans. Our food comes from all over the world, just like pirate booty,” says Vivion.

In a way, he says, Booty’s will be a physical manifestation of their Web site’s brand. Social media and online marketing will be a key part of the concept, he says, explaining that they’ve taken to calling it a “blogstaurant.”

“People see food as a type of content now. They talk about it online, they take pictures of it. It becomes pixels before they’ve even enjoyed it,” he says. “We want chefs to be Tweeting and sharing the food from the kitchen and we want people to convene at our restaurant like they do online now.”
It was the Unicorn of the Apocalypse that disrupted our notions of time and space. Now we could draw sustenance from pixels. An evening around the table was no longer a shared experience. It was shareable #content.  Where we shared it to or from was no longer of any consequence. As Jules Bentley explained, appropriately enough, in Antigravity Magazine,  all terrestrial barriers were being transcended
Booty’s owners, Kevin Farrell and Nick Vivion, met at Burning Man. I would urge anyone keeping tabs on the cultural forces shaping New New New New Orleans to note the ubiquity of Burning Man as a touchstone among the moneyed white Disruptors lately making their marks on our city’s blank slate. “[W]e affectionately say that it’s always Burning Man in New Orleans,” Farrell told the Austin Chronicle in the same interview where Vivion asserted that, given the choice between South by Southwest and Mardi Gras in New Orleans, “I’d much rather go to SXSW. It feels like everyone who is anyone I would want to meet is there.”

The Booty’s narrative centered on their role as Bywater pioneers. Farrell told the Chronicle, “No one was doing anything else here before we put this here.” Out Magazine, one of many out-of-town outlets in which Farrell positioned himself as a New Orleans expert and guide, said “Booty’s has in short order become an anchor in a formerly unmoored neighborhood,” a business that “exemplifies the neighborhood’s transition.” That’s a lot to put on an establishment that, as a Gambit commenter pointed out, had at the time been open less than a year. In a 2013 blog entry, Farrell claimed “taxis literally and uniformly refused to drive to Bywater for the year we spent building Booty’s,” news no doubt confounding to the cabbies who lived and worked in the Ninth Ward before the Booty’s types who Kabacoff and Cummings lured in rendered it unaffordable.
Taxis now could go where no taxis had gone before so now Mardi Gras could be Burning Man which could also be SXSW.  The New New Orleans was limited only by what one could imagine.

Or maybe not.  It turns out the dimensional limits of the New New reality are defined sharply by what one can afford if nothing else. And it is by this paradox that the Blogstaurant seems to have eaten itself
The shades were drawn at Booty's on Tuesday afternoon (Jan. 5). Butcher paper covered the glass doors. Before the holidays a sign, since removed, said the Bywater bar and restaurant at 800 Louisa St. would take an "extended winter break."

Nick Vivion, who owned Booty's with Kevin Farrell, confirmed however that Booty's was closed for good.

But when the Unicorn's horn punctured space time, anomalies were set loose which continue to persist. Not only do the taxis go to Bywater now, so too is our perception of space and distance disrupted by Ubers and Lyfts.  A "sharing economy" perhaps born when the first pixel was shared out of the Booty's kitchen has consumed the entire neighborhood

And it turns out that in the sharezone, not only does space and time fold in up on itself but so do aesthetics.  This is an article from about a year ago on a minimalist decorative sensibility known as "Airspace."  The idea is that Airbnb travelers want the places they stay to retain a familiar interchangeable look and feel.  So short term rental hosts plug into the brand by cultivating a taste for upscale homogeneity. And that style then spreads across the landscape warping the reality it interacts with.
The connective emotional grid of social media platforms is what drives the impression of AirSpace. If taste is globalized, then the logical endpoint is a world in which aesthetic diversity decreases. It resembles a kind of gentrification: one that happens concurrently across global urban centers. Just as a gentrifying neighborhood starts to look less diverse as buildings are renovated and storefronts replaced, so economically similar urban areas around the world might increasingly resemble each other and become interchangeable.

In their introduction to The Fabric of Cultures: Fashion, Identity, and Globalization, the fashion scholars Eugenia Paulicelli and Hazel Clark write that this "aesthetic gentrification… divides the new world map in the light of a softer post-Cold War prejudice: the fashionable and the unfashionable world." In other words, we are experiencing an isolationism of style versus one of politics or physical geography, though it still falls along economic lines. You either belong to the AirSpace class or you don’t.

The homogeneity induced by this division can become stifling, to that point that opting out appears the better option. Rochelle Short was an Airbnb Superhost in Seattle (the designation requires many guests, high response rates, and perfect reviews). She started on the platform in 2013 and became a kind of guru for hosts through her blog, Letting People In. But she stopped hosting this year, as Airbnb itself has in a way become gentrified.

"I think the demographic started to change," Short says. In 2013, Airbnb felt like a true social experiment, "pioneering new territory, attracting people who were open-minded, easy-going, don’t worry if there’s a fleck on the mirror in the bathroom." By 2016, she explains, it "became the vanilla tourist who wanted the Super 8 motel experience. I don’t like these travelers as much as the earlier days."
Airspace ended up affecting Cafe Henri as well. Or so say the proprietors. According to their story, their original plan for the restaurant was a hard dive against convention.  If everything around them was dissolving into Airspace, they would stake out a niche for themselves by bucking that trend.  That didn't work out the way they hoped.
When Cafe Henri opened in Bywater last summer, the owners, Kirk Estopinal and Neal Bodenheimer of the Uptown cocktail bar Cure, called the menu "dad food." By that, they meant a steak, a lasagne, a wedge salad and a cocktail menu with nothing more complicated than a Manhattan or a rum and Coke. The kind of food their own dads would understand. Unfussy, comfort food.

Did their dads like the place?

"They liked it," Estopinal said, but there was a lot of hesitancy in his voice. "It was a hard concept to explain. And to be brutally honest, I don't think we nailed the execution."

More than anything, Estopinal and Bodenheimer misjudged Bywater. They thought the area could use a low-key neighborhood restaurant, the kind of spot where you might stop in a few times a week.

"We thought the neighborhood needed services," Bodenheimer said. "We thought more people actually lived here."

It turns out a lot of their neighbors were short-term rentals
Now is where we should acknowledge our cosmic observations may be corrupted by lack of a control for this experiment.  It's possible that Henri's failure to "nail the execution" on their steak and lasagna contributed as much to its problems as did the shifting contours of the environs.  This week, the local Twitterati had a lot to say about where to lay the actual blame for the restaurant's struggles. But whatever the cause,  the effect was a clear and deliberate lunge toward Airspace. 
Estopinal and Bodenheimer set about changing everything but the name at Cafe Henri.

The classic cocktails were replaced by drinks more like what is served at Cure. The wine list was upgraded. And most importantly, they brought in a new chef.

Estopinal had been friends with chef Alfredo Nogueira for years. The two played in bands together, both in New Orleans and Chicago, where they both ended up after Hurricane Katrina. Estopinal came back to New Orleans in 2008. Nogueira stayed in Chicago and starting cooking Louisiana food at bar called Analogue.

"What makes Analogue worthy of your patronage is the fearlessness of its chef," wrote the Chicago Tribune's Kevin Pang in a 2014. "Nogueira extracts more funk from chicken liver and gizzard than Curtis Mayfield can with an E7+9 chord."
Fearlessness and funk extraction notwithstanding, it was only a day or so after we learned of its "retooling" that the restaurant announced it would close.
The changes, however, were not enough to rescue the restaurant.

"In the end, we failed to fully understand the dynamics of an evolving neighborhood shaped in part by the short-term rental market as well as by the loss of Hollywood South," wrote co-owner Neal Bodenheimer in a Facebook post. "Despite those challenges we remain optimistic about the future of Bywater."

After taking a few months  re-examine culinary trends, the owners announce they will once again be closing while they attempt to better understand the marketplace. We wish them luck.

Currently our understanding of the marketplace is that nobody actually lives there and that, in a related matter, the rent is too damn high.  Maybe this isn't the sole factor in the failure of Cafe Henri but it probably did steer its owners' decisions. Neighborhoods are being absorbed by short term rentals. Local businesses are adjusting their strategies.

Here's another scenario playing out across town
A development company called DensityBump LLC, headed by Lawrence Linder and Richard Ehret, is proposing the “Freret Mews” project on the Neighborhood Housing Services property that spans the block between Freret and Lasalle streets alongside Cadiz Street. The buildings would have ground-floor parking with two-bedroom, two-bath townhouses above, and the project would maintain a driveway between the Publiq House building and the new homes, according to the proposal sent to the City Planning Commission.

We mentioned this development in passing the other day.  It's clearly being drawn up with STRs in mind. The article notes opposition to and support for the project. Notice where each side's interests sit. 
The original plan for the project called for 10 townhomes, but developers reduced it to nine following neighbors’ concerns about density. Though the townhomes will be sold, not rented, some neighbors worried that the new owners would simply use them for AirBnB rentals.

“I strongly oppose the construction of any of these townhouses,” wrote Jena Street neighbor Annie Jane Laurence. “I see this as out-of-town developers looking to make money off my neighborhood.”

Business owners in the blocks around Freret voiced support for the project, however, according to the developers’ notes from a neighborhood meeting in April.

“Thank you, Lawrence, for coming up with a creative way to beautify an ‘ugly’ parking lot and make it useful,” wrote Ross and Ria Turnbull of Piccola Gelateria. “We support this project.”
This suggests we have opposition from people who actually live in the neighborhood and support from some who see profit in bringing in more people who don't.  Maybe the "Mews" will rip the cosmic fabric on Freret the same way the Unicorn did in Bywater.  It's difficult to observe the event horizon of such phenomena until it's already been crossed.  Our scientists are preparing an experiment, though.  Does anybody remember the number for United Cab?

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