A Storied History, a Flourishing Future
In New Orleans, the best meal is always just ahead.
It’s the new-old dilemma of every restaurateur. How do you make an impactful debut in a thriving, centuries-old restaurant scene? Conversely, how do you keep the magic alive after more than a century in business? The close-knit New Orleans culinary community has important lessons to share about its relentless obsession for an unforgettable guest experience, and the belief that, as Commander’s Palace Executive Chef Tory McPhail says: “All of our best meals are still ahead of us."
Though Eric Cook refers to himself as a “lifer” in the New Orleans culinary world, with stints at the venerable Commander's Palace, Bourbon House and Tommy’s Cuisine, Gris-Gris is his first solely owned restaurant. A real appreciation for local flavors, home-cooked comfort food and amazing hospitality learned from years of working with legendary NOLA chefs, all come together at his casual eatery in the Lower Garden District.
“As I got older, I started to realize there is a reason restaurants stay open for 100 years,” he told NOLA.com when Gris-Gris debuted in the summer of 2018.
The feel of home starts with a menu featuring comfort food plucked straight from his childhood, such as Mom’s chicken and dumplings and his father’s barbecued shrimp. Also giving Gris-Gris a homey feel is the centrally located kitchen, open and visible to all, with some customers situated just a few seats away. Dishes focus on local treasures, such as oyster and Cajun caviar po’boy sandwiches and seafood stuffed crab with remoulade sauce.
Cook doesn’t envision Gris-Gris as a destination restaurant, but “a neighborhood spot you can visit several times a week and always feel at home.” A packed “thank you” open house held right before opening followed by a stream of positive press has gotten Gris-Gris’ elevated “taste of home” Creole cuisine off to an auspicious start. Even in a city as sophisticated as New Orleans, “we can’t move forward if we don’t remember where we came from,” says Cook.
Commander’s Palace is inarguably one of New Orleans’ most revered culinary traditions, with a 100+-year legacy of world-class dining from a line of legendary chefs, including Emeril Lagasse, Paul Prudhomme and Jamie Shannon. Home to iconic dishes such as turtle soup and bread pudding soufflé, co-proprietor Ti Adelaide Martin maintains it’s not the food that sets Commander’s Palace apart, but directing every bit of time and effort to ensure an extraordinary customer experience.
“We want to be the world’s best celebration restaurant,” she says. “Every decision we make is about creating memories for our customers.”
Most memorable now are balloons on the table for festive occasions, 25-cent martinis from the “Mad Men” era and full two-course lunches value priced at under $21.
“It’s a ridiculous price,” laughs Martin, “but we can make every person who walks in here feel like a king.”
Still, there’s no laurel-resting at Commander’s, exemplified by Martin’s aphorism, “If it ain’t broke, fix it anyway.” It’s why only a few early mainstays have remained permanently on the menu.
“Guests will tell you they don’t want anything to change, but they don’t really mean it,” she says. “Our spirit, like New Orleans, has always been to live up to what people expect, and then make it even better.”