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Where Y’Eat: What 2021 Showed Us About the Heart of New Orleans Hospitality

Ian McNulty

If 2020 was the year of the pivot, 2021 was all about toggling. It’s that shifting between what we do virtually and face to face, between cautious limits and unbridled reunion, between our feelings of hope and dread, optimism and desolation. Back and forth, over and over. Toggling.

That tracked through New Orleans hospitality too. In fact, the New Orleans table and bar provided a frame for so much of the undulating course of this inscrutable year -- the shutdowns of a cold quiet Mardi Gras, the first hopeful reunions as vaccines grew more available, then the delta surge, then all the politicized blowback against efforts to fight the pandemic, then the impact of Hurricane Ida, and the effort to claw back.

Projections for what lies ahead in 2022 feel about as reliable as this season’s Saints roster. The unknowns of omicron loom, and with them the hopes for a rejuvenated Carnival.

But following the life of New Orleans hospitality through 2021 has illuminated what’s at stake, and why it captivates our attention.

It demonstrated anew how much we get from these places beyond the plate, and also what they need from us beyond just steady business.

We did not keep going to restaurants and bars through all this simply for the delicious food and the uplifting drinks. There was, as ever, the need for experiences, for relationships between people, for the feeling of participating in the life of our city through one of its strongest cultural realms.

I believe that impulse is behind a lot of interactions with our hospitality spaces. As they have alternately staggered and thrived through this unsteady year, we still turned to them to connect with new ideas, with valued traditions, and with each other.

Time and again, this year showed how these connections are stronger and more fulfilling when we simply embrace kindness, patience and empathy as we play our role in them.

Ian covers food culture and dining in New Orleans through his weekly commentary series Where Y’Eat.