Lenten thoughts on NOLA

For years, the New Orleans Police Department has made it a big production: A motorcade clears Bourbon Street of revelers when the clock strikes midnight on Fat Tuesday.

In one of the nation’s most Catholic cities, it’s supposed to symbolize the end of Carnival and the start of Lent.

Though thousands of people attended Ash Wednesday masses in the Crescent City this week, that motorcade is largely for show. The television cameramen love it. You can bet that the restaurants and bars were still going strong Wednesday.

In a Fat Tuesday post on this blog, I talked about the things that have happened in the decade since Hurricane Katrina. I outlined some of the billions of dollars in construction now taking place in the city and admitted that I had been among those who doubted New Orleans could bounce back from the flood.

The goal now must be to ensure that those things that make New Orleans attractive to visitors aren’t lost in the rush to build apartment complexes, medical centers, hotels and the like. I’ve long been fascinated with the history of the American South. So obviously I’m attracted to New Orleans, which for so long stood as the most important city in the region.

I renewed my love affair with New Orleans during a visit two weeks ago.

I stayed at the Bourbon Orleans Hotel. It’s not particularly old — having been built in 1964 — but it sits at the corner of Orleans and Bourbon, a historic intersection.

“The Orleans Theatre opened its doors in 1815,” the hotel’s website states. “The French-provincial building rivaled in grandeur and luxury the old theaters of Europe, but arson brought its glory to ash one year after its debut. John Davis, a New Orleans entrepreneur, quickly rebuilt Theatre d’Orleans and added a grand ballroom known as Salle d’Orleans. The theater was a masterpiece of classic architecture with its lower story of Roman Doric order and upper columns fashioned with ornate Corinthian flutes and elaborate capitals. Creole society flocked to Theatre d’Orleans and Salle d’Orleans. Ladies in full evening costume and men of taste enjoyed performances in the French language.”

In 1881, the Sisters of the Holy Family purchased the site and, in the words of the hotel website, “transformed a former place of vice into a sacred edifice of virtue. The ballroom became the sisterhood’s motherhouse as well as the first Catholic secondary school for colored girls in New Orleans, St. Mary’s Academy. Its atmosphere was no longer that of waltzing Parisian gowns and coquettish young blades of old New Orleans but instead a dedication of women to the cause of religion and charity.”

By the early 1960s, a larger building in a more convenient location (have you ever tried driving around the French Quarter?) was needed. The site was sold to the Bourbon Kings Hotel Corp., and constructions began on the Bourbon Orleans.

During the first night of my visit, I made the short walk from the hotel to Antoine’s to meet Marc Becker, the director of sales and marketing for the New Orleans Hotel Collection, which owns the Bourbon Orleans.

Before going into the 175-year-old restaurant, we met in the Hermes Bar, one of the expansions engineered by Rick Bount, the fifth generation of the family to operate Antoine’s. Blount worked at Antoine’s as a teenager and college student. He managed and owned businesses in Louisiana and Texas before returning to his family business at the urging of his mother, Yvonne Alicatore Blount, in March 2005.

Katrina did massive damage to the building housing Antoine’s. Rick Blount, though, saw it as an opportunity to update the building while at the same time preserving its history. He added the Hermes Bar and the small European-style café on Royal Street known as Antoine’s Annex. He came up with a modern marketing plan. It’s safe to say that Blount has made more changes in the past decade than had been made in the previous century.

Before the storm, Antoine’s was resting on its laurels and living in the past.

The food coming out of the kitchen is better than ever these days with executive chef Michael Regua, whose mother was an Antoine’s cook, directing operations. The younger Regua began work as a prep cook at Antoine’s in 1972.

Antoine’s lost its wine collection in the storm, but beverage manager Matthew Ousset, who started at the restaurant as a waiter and has worked there more than three decades, now oversees a wine cellar of more than 18,000 bottles.

After arriving in this country from his native France, Antoine Alciatore stopped in New York and then came south to New Orleans. French was spoken widely in New Orleans in 1840, and Alciatore felt at home in America’s most European city.

A history of the restaurant posted on the Antoine’s website picks up the story from there: “After a brief period in the kitchen of the grand St. Charles Hotel, Antoine opened a pension, a boarding house and restaurant. It was then that he made arrangements for his fiancée to join him from New York. She came to New Orleans with her sister, and she and Antoine were married. Together they worked to build up their pension with culinary emphasis. New Orleans’ gentility was so taken with the restaurant that it soon outgrew its small quarters, and Antoine’s moved down the block and eventually, in 1868, to the spot on St. Louis Street where the restaurant stands today.

“In 1874, Antoine, being in ill health, took leave of his family with the management of the restaurant in his wife’s hands. He felt he had not much longer to live and wished to die and be buried in his birthplace in France. He told his wife he did not want her to watch him deteriorate and said as he left: ‘As I take the boat for Marseilles, we will not meet again on earth.’ He died within the year. After Antoine’s death, his son Jules served as apprentice under his mother’s tutelage for six years before she sent him to France, where he served in the great kitchens of Paris, Strasbourg and Marseilles. He returned to New Orleans and became chef of the famous Pickwick Club in 1887 before his mother summoned him to head the house of Antoine.”

It was Jules who invented oysters Rockefeller. He married Althea Roy, the daughter of a southwest Louisiana planter, and they had three children — Roy, Jules Jr. and Mary Louise. Roy led the restaurant for almost 40 years until his death in 1972.

Mary Louise married William Guste. Their sons William Jr. (a former Louisiana attorney general) and Roy Guste Sr. became the fourth generation of the family to head the restaurant.

Roy Guste Jr. led Antoine’s from 1975-84. William Jr.’s son, Bernard “Randy” Guste, then managed Antoine’s through 2004.

Blount had worked as the restaurant’s assistant night manager while studying finance at Loyola University. His uncles, William Jr. (known as Billy) and Roy Sr., told him he wouldn’t be a good fit at the restaurant.

“If you had asked me this in my 30s, I would have said that I was discriminated against because my name wasn’t Guste,” Blount told the Times-Picayune last year. “But today I would tell you that I probably was a bull in a china shop. I had this absolute righteousness about me that I knew what was right. That restaurant was a novelty to us and quite honestly it wasn’t that attractive to us as kids. It was very formal. You had to be quiet.”

Blount’s father was a marine surveyor. The family lived far from the restaurant in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans and usually only showed up to eat during Mardi Gras.

“There was pride that we belonged to that family, but there was no economic advantage,” Blount told the newspaper. “We didn’t get to drive a Corvette. We struggled to figure out if we could get new shoes.”

Blount’s first business after college repaired boats for blue marlin fishing. When the shareholders selected Blount to run the restaurant in 2005, his family decided to buy the half stake it didn’t already own.

“There was rampant nepotism everywhere,” Blount told the Times-Picayune. “Everyone was related to everyone. Everyone dated everyone. I thought: ‘How does anyone manage under these conditions?’ It’s just crazy. I thought we needed an operating handbook. We needed service standards. We needed recipe files. What we had were rituals, and I thought we needed laws. I was wrong.”

In the more casual society in which we live, Blount relaxed the Antoine’s dress code and worked hard to attract younger customers to the Hermes Bar, hoping they later would become patrons of the restaurant.

“I think I’ve been a good defender,” he said. “I’ve changed things to allow me to keep things. I think we’re a work in progress. I think we always will be.”

Just around the corner from Antoine’s, there’s an equally refreshed version of Brennan’s. A family feud left the restaurant closed and tied up in the courts before it was bought by Ralph Brennan (who is from another branch of the Brennan family tree) and business partner Terry White. After purchasing the famous salmon-colored structure on Royal Street in 2014, they spent an estimated $20 million (that’s right — $20 million on a restaurant) and hired one of the city’s favorite chefs, Slade Rushing, who has done a spectacular job updating the old Brennan’s classics while adding new dishes to the menu.

Along with the rebirth of traditional New Orleans restaurants such as Antoine’s and Brennan’s, there are the scores of new restaurants gaining attention in all parts of the city. In fact, New Orleans now has almost 600 more restaurants than were operating prior to Katrina.

The January edition of Biz New Orleans magazine featured a story on brothers Marviani, Zeid and Richy Ammari, whose company Creole Cuisine Restaurant Concepts operates a dozen full-service restaurants with more on the way. The restaurant lineup includes such well-known names in the French Quarter as Broussard’s, The Bombay Club and Café Maspero.

Zeid told the magazine: “The city is growing at an unbelievable speed. … The business community is feeling a tremendous growth, and you have to react to that.”

While he was in college in 1989, Marviani took over his first daiquiri store. In addition to the full-service restaurants, the brothers now operate a number of Big Easy Daiquiri locations.

“I love driving downtown, even on a Sunday morning, to touch the buildings, maybe stop at one of the restaurants for a cup of coffee, see the managers,” Marviani told the magazine. “We truly live in the best city in the world. I love what I do.”

The brothers, who now have more than 1,000 employees, bought their first full-service restaurant — the Chartres House — in 2003. They thought about moving their operations to Houston after Katrina, but Marviani finally told his relatives: “I’m not a gambler, but I’m going to put all my money on New Orleans.”

The bet paid off.

The brothers recently turned a former Arby’s location on Canal Street into Creole House Restaurant & Oyster Bar.

On Royal Street, they’re adding what they describe as a rustic Louisiana bistro.

In 2006, the first full year after Katrina, New Orleans had an estimated 3.7 million visitors. There were more than 9.5 million visitors last year.

Diana Schwam, who writes the Frommer’s guide for New Orleans, said of the city: “The post-Katrina energy that has emerged is insane. It’s just really fun and exciting.”

The population has dropped from 460,000 before the storm to about 380,000, but annual hotel revenue has grown from about $1 billion before the storm to more than $1.4 billion now. Total visitor spending is estimated at more than $6 billion. More than 80,000 jobs in the New Orleans area are linked to the hospitality sector. There also were more than 125 permitted festivals in the city last year.

In an article last fall, this is how The New York Times summed up what New Orleans has become in the decade since Katrina: “Old-school Southern men of commerce can still be found here heading to work in seersucker suits in the heat of the hurricane months. They still swap gossip at the private Boston Club and sip Friday-afternoon sazeracs at Galatoire’s, the white-tablecloth grande dame of Creole cooking, just across Canal Street in the fabled French Quarter.

“But in the post-Katrina reality of the Central Business District, these proud and timeless creatures co-exist with a small band of entrepreneurs and techies who lounge, in the glow of laptops, on Swedish-style furniture. They swap irregularly shaped business cards at Capdeville, a gastropub where a riff on red beans and rice is served with a green onion aioli. They make deals at the Pulp & Grind coffee shop, where a flier on a bulletin board recently announced, ‘Cloud developers unite!’ The start-up scene here is, to a great extent, a deliberate construct, built by a small, aggressive group of boosters who believe that this city, so careful to honor its past, must innovate its way to a future that isn’t so reliant on the old standbys of the oil, gas and hospitality industries.”

It’s the new New Orleans.

And it’s worth a visit.

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