Open a restaurant these days and you’re up against some stiff competition. People already have their old favorites, and the restaurant boom has planted new eateries everywhere you turn, all vying for their cut of the business.
Lately though, New Orleans has shown us a new twist on this dynamic: new restaurants that aren’t just up against all the others, but also up against themselves -- an older, idealized version of themselves that lives on in the city’s long memory.
The latest example is a king-sized edition: the Pontchartrain Hotel, which reopened last weekend on St. Charles Avenue. Back too are a clutch of restaurants that were touchstones of their time a generation ago.
The Caribbean Room, the Bayou Bar, the Silver Whistle -- these are evocative names for people who knew the old Pontchartrain Hotel. Today, the hotel’s developers are banking on that appeal, even as they are clearly trying to create something new here.
The style across this revived hotel is vintage, but the flavors at its restaurants and bars are squarely in the contemporary. That’s no surprise, since the restaurant side of the Pontchartrain is run by chef John Besh, who has shown a knack in some of his other restaurants for connecting to New Orleans tradition while corresponding to modern tastes and trends (see Borgne for the best example).
Talk to New Orleanians who remember the hotel in its heyday and their stories run deep and they tend to run rosy. So, naturally, some will go to the new Pontchartrain looking to reconnect.
But no new restaurant can thrive if it’s cast as an exact replica of an old one. Memories endure, but tastes and styles change, even for those who hold the old memories precious.
We do have an interesting precedent for taking historic restaurants in new directions in this town. There’s the new Brennan’s Restaurant on Royal Street, now retooled for our times. Tujague’s is another recent example that’s been revamped for the next generation. And if you go more casual and more New Orleans neighborhood style, the modern rendition of Ye Olde College Inn shows another path too.
Will the Pontchartrain Hotel have similar success? I would say only time will tell, but it’s not that simple. In this case it’s a matter of time plus taste and style plus a deep well of New Orleans memories.
2031 St. Charles Ave., 504-323-1400