A resurgent theater scene is boosting business at New Orleans restaurants

Showtime meets suppertime

Each fall, New Orleans Saints schedules are posted around back-of-the-house areas at Domenica, the Italian restaurant inside the CBD’s Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans. This year, schedules for the Saenger Theatre are on display right beside them.

“They both make such a huge impact on the business now, so we have them taped up everywhere to keep prepared,” said Domenica chef Alon Shaya.

Indeed, while his restaurant fills with customers in black and gold gear when the Saints are playing at home, since the historic Saenger reopened from its long post-Katrina hiatus in late September the Domenica dining room has been booked up on show nights with theatergoers dressed for a night on the town.

It’s been a similar story at restaurants all across downtown New Orleans, and it’s not just the return of the 2,600-seat Saenger. The Civic Theatre on O’Keefe Street reopened earlier this year after sitting idle for three decades and Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre staged its own return over the summer. They join the Joy Theater, a vintage Canal Street movie house that reopened as a performance venue late in 2011, the city’s Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts in nearby Armstrong Park and other smaller venues.

On big nights for any combination of these theaters, downtown now teems with people seeking supper before the show. Pre-theater menus (typically with limited selections of dishes chosen for speedy service) have long been fixtures at some downtown restaurants. What’s new since the convergence of so many performance venues are the lengths to which some restaurants are going to court and accommodate the pre-theater crowd.

One special case is Tableau, which opened in conjunction with the redevelopment of Le Petit Theatre.

While restaurant and theater are separate ventures, they work cooperatively. A second floor bar is connected directly to the theater’s balcony seating area and groups can dine in private rooms before strolling over to the show, all without leaving the building.

Other restaurants have built more figurative connections to theaters.

At M Bistro inside the Ritz-Carlton hotel, special prix fixe menus now resemble playbills. Appetizers are listed as “Act I,” entrees are “Act II.” Managers also brief wait staff on the particulars of current shows, so they can better converse with their customers about the evening ahead.

“People are going out for the full package, and we start the experience for them here at dinner, we want to be part of it,” said Ian Moro, the hotel’s food and beverage director.

The payoff can be substantial. M Bistro served approximately 900 more dinners in October than the same month a year earlier, which Moro attributes directly to the Saenger reopening. Similarly, Domenica saw an 18 percent rise in business last month over a year prior.

With typical curtain times between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m., the pre-theater rush hits when restaurants would normally just be warming up for dinner.

At MiLa, Slade Rushing said the early press of business initially took he and co-chef Allison Vines-Rushing by surprise.

“It was like someone flipped a switch,” Rushing said. “We become a different restaurant on those nights, we become a high-volume restaurant for about an hour and a half leading up to 7 p.m.”

To keep up, the chefs retooled their menu and, most significantly, decided to temporarily shelve their longest-running signature dish.

Oysters Rockefeller “deconstructed,” with delicately poached oysters, sautéed spinach and grated licorice root enveloped in buttery foam, is just too time-consuming to prepare for the pre-theater service, Rushing said.

On Poydras Street, adjacent to the Civic, Sainte Marie Brasserie has embraced its newfound role as a pre-show, and sometimes post-show, destination for meals and drinks.

Bartenders here now mix special cocktails themed to theatrical works underway around town (the latest, a rum drink called “Falling for Mr. Darcy,” is a salute to Southern Rep’s production of “Pride & Prejudice”) and when taking reservations hostesses routinely inquire about customers’ after-dinner theater or concert plans. Managing partner Murf Reeves said that’s to better manage the dining room flow and make sure a party’s reservation gives them enough time to make their show.

“Sometimes we remind people, ‘hey your show starts in an hour and remember it takes 15 minutes to walk to the Joy, or maybe 20 minutes in those heels,” he said.

Patrick Singley worked pre-theater considerations right into his plan for Marti’s, which he opened last month across from the Mahalia Jackson Theater. Dinner begins at 5 p.m., for instance, but even still Singley said the pre-theater rush can call for some hands-on management.

“The problem with New Orleanians is that they like to have two drinks before they even look at the menu, so sometimes we have to push them out the door so they make their show,” he said.