With fall in the air, the New Orleans tourism season is revving up after its long summer lull. It’s the happy time for the hospitality sector here.
It's also a good time to acknowledge that while the tourists bring their wallets, they also carry double-edged swords. Simply put: the more New Orleans restaurants rely on them, the less these restaurants need New Orleans people.
The trajectory isn’t pretty for a community that prizes great food and hospitality as part of its heritage.
It's another dynamic from the city's ever-expanding number of restaurants, which increases pressure on all players to get their piece of the action.
What’s a restaurant to do? It needs that tourism business. There are millions of them coming each year, many times the number of actual residents. And they’re coming here to eat.
So, get buzz, push your image, get on those endless hot lists and maybe enough of them will visit you once. The flickering attention span of the online era raises the pace and the stakes.
It might make business sense but it’s also at odds with what makes New Orleans restaurants valuable to begin with. The reason why New Orleans sells as a great food city is its relationship with New Orleans people.
It’s the way people here cook and recognize local flavor. It’s how they give restaurants their character and texture by investing them with their own stories, how they entwin these places with their own traditions until they’re practically inseparable.
That’s what keeps a restaurant community a true cultural expression of place, and that’s a genuine draw for visitors too. But the more the New Orleans part leaves the equation, the less any of this is true.
People the world over are grappling with how to harness tourism, instead of being overrun by it. In this case, one answer is clear. It’s our relationships with restaurants we as New Orleans people value — recognizing them, remembering them, forging new ones.
That's a longer game. But when it comes to New Orleans food, a slow simmer has always been better than a flash in the pan.