The toast of Tulane

What’s the difference between crazy and visionary? On Tulane Avenue, Pauline and Stephen Patterson are hoping the answer is just a matter of time and a big dose of hospitality.

Last week, the couple opened Trèo, an upscale lounge specializing in craft cocktails and internationally inspired small plates and doubling as an art gallery with second-floor exhibition space. Trèo replaces a gritty dive bar the Pattersons bought last year, and it represents their confidence that the central but badly deteriorated Tulane Avenue corridor will see a revival.

“A lot of our friends were saying, ‘You’re crazy for doing this, you’re mental’,” said Stephen Patterson. “We know people will be apprehensive about coming, but once they do come in, it’s up to us to make them feel comfortable and want to come back.”

Natives of Belfast, Ireland, the Pattersons have since 2002 run their popular Finn McCool’s Irish Pub just four blocks away from Trèo. Their new venture is much different from the pub, however, with no televisions, no smoking and plenty of artistic details worked across the rooms, from etched glass windows to a map of New Orleans rendered in recycled woodwork mounted to the ceiling. Trèo is the Irish word for “direction,” which the Pattersons picked to signify the changing prospects they see on the horizon for what remains a hardscrabble stretch of Tulane Avenue.

“We love the way this area is going and wanted to be part of it,” said Pauline Patterson. “We never considered doing something like this anywhere else.”

The impetus, of course, comes from the Veterans Affairs and University Medical Center hospital complexes now under construction starting about a mile down Tulane Avenue. The hospitals’ promise of many new jobs and an anticipated ripple effect through the neighborhood has spurred more people to invest nearby. As with other parts of town seeing urban redevelopment, restaurants and bars have been in the first wave of new businesses.

One is Avery’s Po-Boys, which Christy and Justin Pitard opened in 2012 directly across from the future VA hospital site. Business had initially been rocky, and they had to contend with persistent nearby crime — mostly drug dealing and prostitution. But Justin Pitard said he felt their lunch spot had turned a corner and they’re now planning to add kitchen staff and develop their restaurant’s bar as construction progresses at the hospitals.

“That’s the whole reason we’re here, those people working there and visiting the hospital will need to eat,” he said.

Similar prospects led business partners Jeff Baron and Bart Bell to open their New York-style pizzeria Pizzicare a few blocks up the avenue in 2011.

“We opened here when we did because we wanted to be a fixture in the neighborhood before things really got rolling,” said Baron.

The neighborhood’s progress has not been as swift or steady as they had hoped, however, and Baron acknowledged they are “holding our breath a bit,” waiting for more businesses to open along the route. Baron hopes a planned redevelopment of Tulane Avenue’s streetscape — narrowing the street from six to four lanes, widening the neutral ground and adding bike lanes — will slow down traffic and give more commuters a chance to notice the new businesses taking root.

“Right now, people just fly past,” he said. “We just need people to take a look.”

Closer to Trèo, more changes are already piling up. Two blocks from the new lounge, a convenience store was transformed late last year into Namese, a modern-looking Vietnamese cafe complete with a dining patio. And one block down from Trèo, the former On-I Sports Bar was remodeled and reopened last week as the Tulane Avenue Bar. Bertrand Washington, one of the owners, described Tulane Avenue Bar as a gay bar, and he said the changes were intended to upgrade and keep pace with the neighborhood.

For Pauline Patterson, the art gallery aspect of Trèo is just as important as the bar and kitchen, and she’s planning collaborative exhibits with community groups and shows by guest curators from around the local art scene. It’s part of making the new business a destination, she said, and encouraging people to give the potential along Tulane Avenue a second look.

“We know eventually this area will redevelop and we don’t want it to be all strip malls,” she said. “We want to have things here that are a bit different to show people what they can do here. We want to keep it New Orleans.”