The news was hard for some to believe. Tujague’s Restaurant, the second-oldest restaurant in New Orleans, will relocate. But it is happening, and when the move is complete the question may be, do people still believe in Tujague’s?
At least we have time to get used to the idea. Tujague’s plans to stay put until renovations are complete next summer at its new home. And it’s a short move, a few blocks up Decatur Street, still in the French Quarter.
But the implications are far greater than the distance. This is a test case for what actually defines a restaurant's identity, and whether a restaurant’s character and personality can be transplanted.
What goes into these intangibles? Is it the physical space where the memories are made and reside? Is it the particular dishes, the people who work there, the people who congregate there, the changes and work-arounds that accumulate over time, the touchstones that endure through them?
I think it’s a blend of all these things, and in different circumstances their relative importance and role can toggle, like the control knobs shifting on a sound board to tune in the right pitch.
We’ve seen this play out in different ways. After Katrina we all had to face the prospect that practically anything we loved about this town might not return. We live with gratitude that so much did, even, sometimes, on different terms.
There’s no example that neatly matches Tujague’s, because its history is so long. But history is about more than dates. What keeps the great historic restaurants of New Orleans from becoming historic exhibits is the way people use them.
They animate them with their celebrations, personality and loyalty. That’s what gives any tradition its relevance.
When Tujague’s relocates, it will keep serving its famous brisket and shrimp remoulade. What role it serves in New Orleans restaurant culture will be up to New Orleans itself to determine.