When Arnaud’s was closed for heavy renovations back in the late 1970s, a cadre of regulars were issued their own keys to its Richelieu Bar. They could let themselves in, keep an eye on construction progress and lift a cocktail in their old haunt.
To stay afloat during a particularly lean time, Arnaud’s created a pre-digital form of crowd funding, essentially selling timeshare rights to its dining room tables. An acclaimed New Orleans chef and food scientist was once brought in to recalibrate classic recipes behind the scenes.
And for years there was the diplomatic dance between the family that bought Arnaud’s and the woman who had inherited it. She still lived in an apartment within the rambling property and had to be handled as delicately as a hot soufflé potato.
All this was part of steering Arnaud’s through the most fraught period in its long history, and reintroducing the restaurant to a city that by then had largely written it off.
Arnaud’s celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2018, an impressive run for any business, never mind a restaurant.
But before it could make it to the century mark, Arnaud’s had to survive the year 1978. That’s when the restaurant changed hands and when its present proprietors, the Casbarian family, began reviving this faded beauty of New Orleans cuisine.
Stories from that time resonate with the next generation family owners, now tasked with maneuvering a restaurant as elegant as an opera house and as big as a steamboat through the modern food world. And they inspire them as they grapple with a question every restaurateur faces – how to keep customers coming back in an always-changing dining scene.
“In a way it doesn’t matter that this place is 100 years old, what matters is the good times that happened here, and the hard times it’s endured,” said Archie Casbarian Jr., who runs Arnaud’s with his sister Katy and their mother Jane. “It’s the memories that go along with a restaurant through it all. When you experience that you can’t help but feel a connection with a place.”
Debuts and decline
“Our family was aghast,” recalled Jane Casbarian, a native of Uptown New Orleans. “We had no money to take this on.”
But her husband, the late Archie Casbarian, had a special gleam in his eye for Arnaud’s, and he had a plan.
Born in Egypt, Archie Casbarian had a formal education in the hotelier’s profession, first in Europe, then in the U.S. Eventually, he ran the Royal Sonesta Hotel, and from this post he could look across Bourbon Street to see Arnaud’s as it shifted from decline to freefall.
“She was a sad old gal, as run down as a place could be,” Jane Casbarian recalled. “If there was a roof leak, they would close the doors to that room and stop using it.”
But even back in the 1970s, they just didn’t make restaurants like Arnaud’s anymore – so big and grand, a mosaic of woodwork, tile and etched glass, a place stepped in its own history. It would be impossible to re-create such a place from scratch, but maybe, just maybe, it could be resuscitated with a different approach.
Casbarian wagered that with a hotelier’s touch, with a hotel’s regimented management system, with a dedicated sales department to book parties, he could fill Arnaud’s with life again.
“I think the history of the place had a tremendous impact on him,” said Ron Pincus, longtime manager of the Hotel Monteleone and a close friend of the Casbarian family. “Archie was a man of great taste and style. He had a sense of Arnaud’s past grandeur and he wanted to bring that back.”
Arnaud’s was opened in the last year of the First World War by Count Arnaud, the nickname for Leon Bertrand Arnaud Cazenave. He was a French-born champagne salesman with no actual claim to nobility but a gift for self-promotion.
From one stately townhouse on Bienville Street, he eventually built his restaurant into an interconnected complex of 13 buildings. This laid the framework for the modern day Arnaud’s, which covers nearly its entire block, has 18 dining rooms, two distinct bars and can seat 1,000 guests at a time.
A restaurant so large cannot turn on a dime, and for generations it had no need to. Count Arnaud set the restaurant’s culinary style in French Creole, the upscale standard of his day. Some of that early template endures on today’s much shorter menu. The repertoire of shrimp Arnaud, trout meuniere with brabant potatoes and caramel custard is such a common standing order that some regulars call it “the happy meal.”
After the Count’s death in 1948, the restaurant passed to his daughter, Germaine Cazenave Wells. She reigned as queen in at least 22 Carnival balls, and Arnaud’s Restaurant was her year-round throne room. She created her own Easter parade, the start of a tradition that continues in the French Quarter this weekend.
From its peak days, however, the restaurant began a long slide to the bottom.
“Oh for the glories that were once Arnaud’s,” wrote Richard Collin, the influential local restaurant critic, in his 1970 guide book “Underground Gourmet.” He chided that despite flickers of residual greatness “Arnaud’s must take itself seriously” to remain an important New Orleans restaurant.
But by 1978 it was all over, for Collin at least. In a guide published that year, he advised readers to just peer in the doorway “so you can see what was once a golden place in New Orleans culinary history. It’s all past.”
Debts and bonds
“It was such a dilapidated building, they didn’t have a clue what they were getting into,” said Mitch Hoffman. “But with Archie, I always felt confident he’d find a way to pull it off.”
Hoffman was the late restaurateur’s attorney, and he had a unique perch to watch just what that entailed. Peter was often robbed to pay Paul, personal loans sometimes covered payroll, a crew of unpaid electricians were kept working – and out of the courthouse – with a lavish feast hosted by Casbarian himself.
“Archie was such a showman at all times,” Hoffman said. “The food, the liquor, they walked out so happy and never thought of suing.”
While the Casbarians took over the restaurant late in 1978, it took months to reopen just one dining room to their standards. The larger renovation would cost millions, and in the midst of that effort interest rates soared to well over 20 percent. But one alternate source of financing turned up in the dining room.
“It started with a joke about all the condos and timeshares that were then catching on in the French Quarter,” Pincus said. “Archie said he wished he could condo his tables.”
But after chuckling about it, Casbarian made some of his well-heeled customers a deal: for $10,000 they could buy a table that came with $12,000 in food and drink credit and a promise that, with a half-hour notice, it was always available to them. Brass plaques engraved with these investors’ names still line the restaurant walls by their tables.
The money kept renovations going, and the transaction forged fresh bonds with this old, now renewed restaurant. The move followed in the same mode as those keys for the Richelieu Bar, helping regulars feel like they were on the inside track as the restaurant changed gears.
These were lessons not lost on today’s proprietors.
“How do you make people feel that sense of ownership to a restaurant, that it’s something they’re part of?” said Katy Casbarian. “One thing we learned is you never take anyone who walks through your door for granted, and you look for these ways to connect with them.”
For the first four years, Jane and Archie Casbarian leased Arnaud’s from Wells. She kept her old apartment within the restaurant, and regularly emerged to give the current management advice and, more typically, admonishments.
Archie Casbarian did more than take it in stride - he swept the venerable Carnival queen along with him. He escorted her to balls, supped with her to settle disputes and didn’t flinch at her famously impolitic pronouncements.
Even today, there’s a pocket museum in her honor within the restaurant, filled with her Carnival gowns and Mardi Gras memorabilia.
Still, there were technical aspects to the relationship that proved sticky. The Casbarians’ lease required them to purchase the restaurant’s signature remoulade sauce from their landlord. It was whipped up in an old barrel by a cook remembered as “Sir Henry.” The Casbarians lived in fear that it would spoil and make someone sick.
After Wells’ death in 1983, however, they bought the restaurant and that was the end of the remoulade barrel. They got some kitchen consulting help from Warren Leruth, the chef and food scientist who had created the recipes for Popeyes red beans, green goddess salad dressing and other signature flavors. He came up with a new remoulade recipe, along with others that remain Arnaud’s staples, like its meuniere sauce.
“He understood Creole flavor and had a way of translating it to scientific recipes and formulas that you could use again and again,” said Jane Casbarian. “It was part of getting the restaurant back to what it once had been, a grand Creole restaurant.”
That grand Creole restaurant would survive the oil bust of the 1980s, the economic aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina.
The ambiance still feels classic, from the tuxedoed waiters to the tableside dessert carts where they ignite boozy café brûlot. But classic doesn’t necessarily mean unchanging, and at its 100th anniversary Arnaud’s is starting to see the next generation’s decisions add up.
The menu took a subtle new turn a few years back with some revamped dishes, including a new vegan one (though this stuffed mirliton still fits the Creole profile).
And last year, Arnaud's earned the sort of national attention many ambitious modern restaurants preen for – the James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program, for its Arnaud’s French 75 Bar, a cocktail den directed by head bartender Chris Hannah.
Archie and Katy, now in their early 40s, were raised in the restaurant, at first playing in its dining rooms before service, later taking on progressively larger roles in management.
They learned the business literally at their father’s side. As a retinal disorder diminished his eyesight, he relied increasingly on his children and on Jane to guide him on his rounds through the restaurant. Jane and the siblings have run Arnaud’s together since Archie Casbarian died from cancer in 2009, at age 72.
“You lose your father, your mentor and your business leader in one fell swoop, that’s pretty devastating for a family business,” Katy Casbarian said. “But that’s when the switch flipped. It was in the middle of the recession. It was a difficult time. But I think that’s when we really knew it would be on us to keep this legacy going.”
Today, Jane oversees purchasing for the restaurant, while the roles of Katy and Archie intersect around just about everything else. They share an office, where their desk chairs back into each other as they debate decisions over their shoulders. In small ways like this, a huge restaurant retains a family touch, and it extends to the dining room.
“I love watching people who came in here as kids come back now with their own kids. That’s one thing the classic restaurants have in New Orleans, the different generations coming here,” said Jane Casbarian. “This was our dream. I wish Archie was here to see what our wonderful children have done with it”
813 Bienville St., 504-523-5433
Dinner daily, brunch Sun.
Arnaud’s marks its 100th anniversary in 2018 and has special events planned throughout the year.
May 10: Cocktails in the Count’s Room, a cocktail reception
Sept. 21: Germaine’s Champagne Campaign, a Champagne lunch
Nov. 29: Arnaud’s Centennial Gala, a formal celebration
For updates, see arnaudsrestaurant.com.
As Tujague’s restaurant marks its 160th anniversary, it’s legacy and its latest chapter under new owners is up for evaluation, staff art, arch…
The night began in typical fashion for Tony Angello's Ristorante.
The Pontchartrain Hotel on St. Charles Avenue was once a home-away-from-home for visiting celebrities who prized its discretion, and for New O…
Chefs can win acclaim and maybe get famous. Restaurateurs can build empires and they might make fortunes. But in New Orleans these aren't the …