One of the great New Orleans restaurants of a generation past is coming back, led by a top chef from the city’s culinary vanguard.
John Besh plans to reopen the Caribbean Room in the Pontchartrain Hotel when that historic St. Charles Avenue property itself reopens after a major renovation now underway.
The chef’s Besh Restaurant Group has signed a deal with the hotel’s owners, AJ Capital Partners, to provide food and beverage service at the 106-room hotel, the two companies announced Monday.
Through the partnership, Besh’s group will reopen two other historic amenities at the hotel — the Bayou Bar and the Silver Whistle coffee shop. It also will develop a new rooftop bar on the hotel’s penthouse level.
While many details are still in the works, including a chef for the Caribbean Room, Besh said he intends to return the storied Creole restaurant to its past prominence.
“It was an important room, and it will be an important room again,” he said. “It’s not about trying to bring history back but to honor what the Caribbean Room gave us and be a good steward of that foundation. We don’t want to re-create the past but rather honor it.”
Dating to 1948, Caribbean Room produced a roster of dishes that have entered the Creole culinary lexicon. Among the famous dishes from its kitchen were trout Veronique, with a sauce of hollandaise and grapes; shrimp Saki, broiled in-shell with lemon butter sauce; crabmeat Remick, baked in a ramekin with a spicy sauce; oysters en brochette; and the towering “mile-high pie,” an ice cream pie with meringue and chocolate sauce.
Besh, a Slidell native, said he has memories of special dinners with his family at the Caribbean Room. So do many others, and the chef said he’s keenly aware of the challenges of reviving a restaurant so heavily imbued with memories and nostalgia.
“What we want to do here is capture what drew people while keeping it modern and current and smart,” he said.
Brian Landry, the chef and partner in the Besh seafood restaurant Borgne, and Besh’s chief operating officer, Emery Whalen, have taken lead roles in the project.
While particulars are still taking shape, tropical designs, rattan furniture and white tablecloths are all part of the plan for the Caribbean Room, which still has its vintage murals.
The Pontchartrain Hotel was first opened in 1927. It was run for many years by Lysle Aschaffenburg and later by his son Albert, until the family sold it in 1987.
At different epochs through its history, the property has changed back and forth between permanent residences and a full-service hotel. It drew a well-heeled clientele in both modes, including visiting movie stars, famous writers and American presidents as a hotel and, later, as a retirement residence for many local society figures.
In 2014, it was purchased by the Chicago-based hotel investment firm AJ Capital Partners. Cooper Manning, brother of NFL stars Peyton and Eli Manning, is one of the local investors in the project, according to a release from AJ Capital Partners announcing the acquisition.
The Caribbean Room opened in 1948 and long held a place in the top rung of New Orleans restaurants.
Writing in 1970, restaurant critic Richard Collin called the Caribbean Room “one of the distinguished restaurants of New Orleans,” with a menu that offered “some of the most imaginative versions of the rich Creole cuisine.”
Collin noted that part of its reputation stemmed from the private dinners held there for celebrities staying at the hotel.
In later years, however, critics would bemoan falling standards at the Caribbean Room.
“The restaurant was already fading when the Aschaffenburgs sold the hotel in 1987. … When it finally closed, few people noticed, so marginal had the restaurant become,” longtime New Orleans restaurant writer Tom Fitzmorris noted in his collection on “Extinct Restaurants.”
The Caribbean Room wasn’t the hotel’s only draw. In its heyday, the Silver Whistle was known as a breakfast nook for local movers and shakers; a large table often hosted morning meetings.
The Besh Restaurant Group plans to open the new Silver Whistle with a mix of contemporary and classic dishes, including the blueberry muffins for which it was known. There even will be a 10-top table.
The Bayou Bar also has its own claim to fame. It was here in 1969 that local civic and business leaders met with NFL officials to sign the paperwork that created the New Orleans Saints. The new Bayou Bar will have a focus on beer and whiskey, a bar menu and a casual, tavern ambiance.
The hotel’s new rooftop level bar, which has yet to be named, presents more of a blank slate. But Besh noted it’s one that starts with a view looking across the Mississippi River and the downtown skyline.
The bar will focus on cocktails and sparkling wine, while the menu will have shared plates and light snacks.
Besh and his chef partners have been in expansion mode lately, opening four new restaurants since 2014 alone. He now has 12 restaurants, including locations of Johnny Sanchez in Baltimore and Lüke in San Antonio.
Besh said the growing size and capacity of his company gave him the confidence to take on the Pontchartrain Hotel project.
“I’m only doing this because we have the team to pull it off,” he said. “I know I have the team that can support this.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.