The names involved are big. Cooper Manning is part of New Orleans’ first family of football. John Besh is one of the city’s most celebrated chefs, and certainly one of its busiest restaurateurs.
The project that has the two men working together now, however, comes with names that reach back farther in local history.
The Pontchartrain Hotel, which is slated to officially reopen Friday on St. Charles Avenue, was a hotspot for New Orleans in an earlier era, a magnet for the glamorous and a backdrop for grand functions.
Its marquee restaurant, the Caribbean Room, once ranked among the city’s most acclaimed. Even the mention of its famous dishes can still tantalize, perhaps no surprise in a city where remembrances of great feasts are relished the way romantics recall old flames.
“I’ve gotten letters from little old ladies in their perfect penmanship, just a list their favorite old dishes, crabmeat Remick, shrimp Saki, mile high pie, and then they’ll write ‘so excited!’” said Manning. “We’re excited too, but after you get something like that, you get nervous about letting them down.”
Still, Manning and Besh both say that pure historic fidelity is not their aim for the new Pontchartrain Hotel and its clutch of restaurants and bars. To be successful, they’ll need to speak to younger generations as much as they hark back to the past.
“Half the people coming in will remember it in its heyday,” said Besh. “The other half will probably have no idea what it was back then.”
Their task is to reintroduce a New Orleans institution that has been out of circulation but remains framed by lore and memories. They’ll need to satisfy those who come to reconnect and also meet the expectations that modern diners and travelers bring to their door.
“That’s the challenge and the excitement of this place,” said Besh. “That’s the trick we’ll have to pull off.”
A high rise with many stories
Manning is one of the local investors in the new Pontchartrain Hotel, which was redeveloped by Chicago-based AJ Capital Partners. Besh oversees food and beverage across the property through Our House Hospitality, the hotel and resort dining division his company created this year.
While hotels everywhere now build chef-led restaurants and destination bars into their projects, the new Pontchartrain Hotel is practically a hive of them. At 106 rooms, this is not a very large hotel and yet it has four distinct dining and drinking spots across the property. For the developers, making these an integral part of the Pontchartrain felt like a historic imperative.
“When you have this much history and so much to draw on, so much good will behind you, that’s why you want to bring something like this back,” said Besh.
The Pontchartrain Hotel was built in 1927. It was run for many years by Lysle Aschaffenburg, and later by his son Albert, until the family sold it in 1987. Other owners operated it in later years, as a hotel and later as assisted living apartments, though it appeared that the gilded days for the property were done.
In earlier epochs, the Pontchartrain Hotel drew a well-heeled clientele. Guests included visiting movie stars, famous writers and American presidents. New Orleans society figures used this stately high-rise on the edge of the Garden District as their retirement residence.
Many more New Orleanians from different walks of life paid regular visits to the hotel’s bars and restaurants.
In the morning, the place to be was the Silver Whistle, a breakfast nook favored by local movers and shakers. Across the hall, the Bayou Bar was a dark den of burnished wood and mossy-lush murals of Louisiana wilderness with a gleaming Steinway in the corner. It was here that local leaders met with NFL officials in 1966 to sign the paperwork that created the New Orleans Saints.
The Caribbean Room, first opened in 1948, was a destination for special evenings. Writing in 1970, the restaurant critic Richard Collin called it “one of the distinguished restaurants of New Orleans,” with a menu that offered “some of the most imaginative versions of the rich Creole cuisine.”
That included trout Veronique, made with a sauce of Hollandaise and grapes; shrimp Saki, broiled with lemon butter sauce; crabmeat Remick, baked with a spicy sauce; and Mile High Pie, a column of ice cream under meringue and chocolate sauce.
Past and presence
Those flagship dishes are back at the new Caribbean Room, with some modifications and with plenty of more contemporary culinary company. They share the opening menu with beef and beet tartare, for instance, and red snapper crusted with corn in a courtbouillon reduction.
The executive chef for the hotel is Chris Lusk, formerly chef de cuisine at Restaurant R’Evolution. He joined Besh’s company in December, and since then he’s been working closely with Brian Landry, one of Besh’s chef/partners, to set the Caribbean Room’s culinary tone.
They found troves of old recipes from the restaurant’s past, and they talked with members of the Aschaffenburg family about their memories of the place. In March, the chefs staged an early trial run of their menu ideas for some of these Pontchartrain Hotel alums at Besh’s seafood restaurant Borgne to gauge their response and get feedback.
“It’s about being inspired by these great dishes without trying to re-create the past or being hemmed in by the past,” said Besh. “Let’s discover what part of the past we want to reinterpret and what parts we want to bring back.”
Besh’s chefs have created separate menus for the Caribbean Room, the Bayou Bar (look for sandwiches, burgers and such) and the Silver Whistle Cafe (breakfast po-boys, the blueberry muffins for which the shop was well known). And there’s a menu of small plates and snacks for a newly-built rooftop bar, called Hot Tin, a cheeky reference to Tennessee Williams, who once stayed at the hotel.
A tour through the Caribbean Room prior to the opening felt like stalking a stage set just before the curtain rises. One room opens to the next like shifting tableau. The ambiance feels as soft as pastel, colorful and vintage, with plants hanging below a large skylight in the front dining room, wainscoting ridging the walls in another and a banana frond pattern crisscrossing the carpet underfoot.
It runs against the trends of rustic-casual or industrial chic that mark so many new restaurants and it synchs with the overall design of the Pontchartrain Hotel. It’s grand but also idiosyncratic, and to Manning that’s part of aligning the hotel with the personality of the city.
“You want it to feel like you’re sitting in your crazy aunt’s house in the Garden District, the one who has money but no one is really sure how,” said Manning. “We want to be fundamentally New Orleans. You walk into a room and you know you’re not in Boston, you know you’re in New Orleans.”
“This old hotel around the corner”
That pride of place is one reason the Pontchartrain Hotel came back in the first place.
Manning is friends with the founder of AJ Capital Partners, Ben Weprin, who has had success reviving older hotels and resorts around the country. Manning knew Weprin was scouting possible projects in New Orleans.
“I told him about this old hotel around the corner from my parent’s house and started telling him stories about it,” Manning said. “That’s when we started looking at it. The idea of this being available was just irresistible.”
He grew up five blocks away on First Street, in the Garden District home where his parents Olivia and Archie Manning still live. The Pontchartrain Hotel was a frequent destination for family meals at the holidays, or when the Mannings’ old friends from Mississippi were visiting. Then there were some not-so-joyous occasions, especially when his father was quarterback for the largely futile Saints in the 1970s.
“Dad would sometimes come here after games,” said Manning. “But when the Saints got crushed by 20 or 30 points, it wasn’t to celebrate but to share the misery a bit.”
The Bayou Bar was renovated as part of the hotel’s redevelopment. But Manning points out this wasn’t to change it so much as to bring it back to the way people remember it. The old piano, with a cushioned drink rail curving around its edge, remained in the building through it all. Over the weekend, Phil Melancon was back at the keys while the new staff gave the menus a trial run.
“A lot of work went into making it feel like it did in the 1970s and ‘80s,” Manning said of the Bayou Bar. “Some things you want to keep sacred.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.