As the Saints season got underway in 1992, Jim Mora was head coach, Bobby Hebert was quarterback and Gina and Rob Wilemon started what’s become a long-running tradition just outside the Superdome.
The couple had opened their Allegro Bistro earlier that year, and they were primarily courting a weekday business lunch crowd. But with the Superdome just a few blocks away, they decided to mark the first Saints home game in their new restaurant by opening on Sunday morning and throwing a party.
“There were hardly any other restaurants down here then,” recalled Gina Wilemon. “It was just tailgaters, and then people would start flowing by the place on the way to the Dome. We wanted to do something up to join the spirit.”
Now, 22 seasons later, the pre-game party at Allegro Bistro has become a fixture of downtown festivities, with grills and bars and a DJ station arrayed across its patio on the Lafayette Street pedestrian mall. These days, plenty of its neighbors also are vying to be part of Saints fans’ game day celebration.
The Saints start a three-week stretch of home games this weekend, with two consecutive Sunday games followed by a Monday night game on Nov. 24. In response, many downtown restaurants will be changing up their own game plans to help fans fuel up on their way to the Dome and (hopefully) celebrate another Saints win on the way out.
Upscale restaurants go more casual, while the scene at some casual restaurants can start to resemble mini festivals. Here are some different looks at the pre-game restaurant experience:
Bashes and Brass Bands
1100 Poydras St., (504) 582-2350; allegrobistro.com
Doors open two hours before kickoff, with a buffet in the dining room and walk-up bars and grills in the patio.
601 Tchoupitoulas St., (504) 335-1740; barcadianeworleans.com
A combination tavern/coin-op game room, Barcadia expands its dining room into the sidewalk with mobile bars and tents on home game days, and it opens at 9 a.m. to serve its regular menu of gastropub fare, including an ersatz breakfast burger topped with praline bacon and an over-easy egg.
Little Gem Saloon
445 S. Rampart St., (504) 267-4863; littlegemsaloon.com
This restaurant/music hall serves a game day menu of Creole and Southern-style comfort designed for quicker service, and hosts the Lagniappe brass band as a soundtrack for post-game parties.
Lucy’s Retired Surfers Bar
701 Tchoupitoulas St., (504) 523-8995; lucysretiredsurfers.com
Another block party scene emerges outside this popular cantina, where mobile bars hit the sidewalk starting at 10 a.m. and more brunch dishes join the line up.
Walk-On’s Bistreaux & Bar
1009 Poydras St., (504) 309-6530; walk-ons.com
Mobile bars line the sidewalk, bartenders in cheerleader outfits pour the drinks, beefy security teams man the doors and this sprawling sports bar splits the difference between eatery and block party during home games.
Steak to (Hopefully) Celebrate
Desi Vega Steakhouse
628 St Charles Ave., (504) 523-7600; desivegasteaks.com
Normally closed on Sundays, this sibling restaurant to Mr. John’s Steakhouse opens its Prime Lounge at 10 a.m. on home game days for “eye openers” and starts serving in the dining room at 3 p.m. For the Monday night game, the restaurant stays open throughout the afternoon and its lounge opens at 2:30 p.m.
Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse
716 Iberville St., (504) 522-2467; dickiebrennanssteakhouse.com
Tailor-made for big-deal dinners, with its banquette booths and warren of subterranean private dining rooms, things get a little looser when the Saints are home. The steakhouse opens at 4 p.m. to accommodate meals after the noon games or before night games, and in addition to the regular menu serves game day specials like burgers, steak salads and upscale bar food until 7 p.m.
“People want to celebrate a big win or drown their sorrows in some prime rib debris fries,” said manager Rebecca Schattman.
Upscale with an Earlier Start
123 Baronne St., (504) 648-6020; domenicarestaurant.com
930 Poydras St., (504) 304-6615; johnnysanchezrestaurant.com
301 Tchoupitoulas St., (504) 299-9777; restaurantaugust.com
Most of chef John Besh’s restaurants are near the Dome, and for noon home games three of them open early at 10 a.m. The lux Restaurant August recently added a weekly Sunday brunch menu (look for fried quail with pain perdu and veal cheek grillades with burrata cheese grits), and serves this an hour earlier than normal on game days. Domenica adds a breakfast pizza with bacon and egg to its regular menu for morning service and the month-old taqueria Johnny Sánchez has been serving Mexican breakfast dishes, like chilaquiles.
Cafe Adelaide & The Swizzle Stick Bar
300 Poydras St. (504) 595-3305; cafeadelaide.com
While the restaurant keeps its normal hours (opening for brunch at 7 a.m. on Sundays), the attached Swizzle Stick Bar opens early at 9 a.m. for home games for morning cocktails.
800 Tchoupitoulas St., (504) 528-9393; emerilsrestaurants.com
All three of chef Emeril Lagasse’s local restaurants open somewhat earlier for home games, though his Warehouse District flagship sees the biggest game day bounce. Emeril’s opens early at 3 p.m. on Nov. 9, 3:30 p.m. on Nov. 16 and at 4:30 p.m. ahead of the Nov. 24 Monday night game.
The menu doesn’t change for game day, but the way people use the restaurant does, said Tony Lott, Emeril’s director of operations.
“We get regulars who come for every game, it’s part of their tradition, and some people just roll in because they see their friends coming out of the Dome and decide to make a day of it,” he said. “It’s a celebration. No one is here on a sales dinner, worried about talking to their clients. The bar fills up fast.”
One game day go-to at Emeril’s are the duck wings — massive, glistening with a Buffalo-style sauce and dressed up with shaved celery and whipped blue cheese. The wings are always available, but Lott said when customers arrive after a day at the Dome they practically fly off the menu.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.