Emeril Lagasse has become a ubiquitous and beloved elder statesman of the American dining scene, but 25 years ago he was just striking out on his own after a successful seven-year run at New Orleans’ famous Commander’s Palace restaurant. The opening of Emeril’s in the city’s Warehouse District on March 26, 1990 ushered in a “New New Orleans cuisine” revolution. To commemorate the 25th anniversary of this momentous occasion, the restaurant will be hosting a celebration for the entire month of March, with weekly throwback menus to the restaurant’s earliest days, special wine pairings, and celebratory dinners. We spoke with Emeril about the restaurant’s beginnings, the New Orleans dining scene in 1990, and his favorite items on the menu.
The Daily Meal: When you first set out to open Emeril’s, what type of restaurant were you looking to open? What was your blueprint?
Emeril Lagasse: Well, [Commanders Palace owner] Ella Brennan and I had talked about doing something together, and I felt that the Warehouse District needed a pioneer. There was a great space across the street from my apartment, but it was abandoned. I decided I’d give it a shot. I wanted it to be a white tablecloth restaurant, one that would be great for locals and encourage them to come out to the Warehouse District. We’ve had some renovations over the years, we’ve added a little space, but what you see today is what we set out to accomplish. The heart and soul are still all there.
What was the moment you realized that you had something really special on your hands?
We had no money when we opened. The neighborhood was so bad that we had to carry a gun with us! It was crazy. Things started making sense when the first major review came out, by Gene Bourg at the Times-Picayune. I was so nervous, I was sweating, I was sick to my stomach, and we got one of the best reviews in the history of New Orleans. A few months later John Mariani wrote that we were the best new restaurant in the country. Now we had to think about how we were going to live up to the expectations. Talk about pressure!
How would you describe the New Orleans dining scene when Emeril’s first opened?
When Emeril’s opened it was the first new restaurant to open in New Orleans in quite some time. There had been no new restaurants to open in New Orleans in five years because of the recession, so there really wasn’t any action whatsoever. It’s hard to imagine that now, because it’s insane right now. It’s amazing to see how the city has evolved.
Which dishes on the menu are you most proud of?
My barbecue shrimp will always be on the menu, and the banana cream pie with a banana crust and caramel is also something I’m really proud of.
When you think back over the past 25 years, what are your fondest memories of Emeril’s?
We’ve served lots of famous actors and actresses, and I’m a musician at heart so to be able to serve people like Billy Joel and Frank Sinatra is incredible. But at the end of the day, to see my restaurant half-full with people I know by name – and I also probably know their kids and their parents – you really just can’t beat that.