Thursday, March 28, 2013

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Preservationists and Historians Rally to Save 19th Century Bar Tujague's

Tujague's is one of the most authentic, unspoiled examples 
of a nineteenth-century bar left in America. 
To lose it would be to not only lose an important link 
with the history of New Orleans 
(a city whose reputation as a place to visit was largely built
 on the character of its old bars and restaurants) 
but with America's history as well. 
I know that with a little patience this historic place 
can be saved, and I pray that that patience is found.

~ David Wondrich
cocktail historian

It's hard to spend much time in New Orleans without, at some point, ending up at Tujague's. The restaurant, built on the site of an old Spanish armory in 1827, is just around the corner from Jackson Square and, although I've never ended a night there, I have begun quite a few days in the cool embrace of its bar. Nursed along several afternoons as well with a Sazerac or a Angostura phosphate in hand. I don't know how old the long cypress bar itself is, but the mirror behind it came from Paris in the decade before Lincoln was elected president. The bar is far older than I and — or so I thought until this week — was destined to survive me.

That prospect is now in doubt.

Errol Laborde, editor of New Orleans magazine, writes about troubling rumors concerning the historic restaurant after its long-time owner, Steven Latter, recently died:
According to the rumors, the building on Decatur Street that houses the last of the original Creole Restaurants and the second oldest (after Antoine’s) restaurant in the city will be sold to businessman Mike Motwani who is known for converting businesses into tacky, touristy T-shirt and gift shops. Motwani supposedly will do the same, though the front part of the building, according to my source, might be used to serve fried chicken.
Laborde pulls no punches. "Preservationists and those who care about urban style and character," he explains, "have long despised Motwani’s businesses." He goes on with a plea to Mr Latter's surviving brother, Stanford, who owns the building itself: "Please Mr. Latter, keep the legacy of your brother’s restaurant alive. At the very least, don't let the builiding fall into the hands of those who don't give a damn about the character of the city."

Ann Tuennerman, founder of Tales of the Cocktail, wrote an open letter to Stanford Latter bemoaning the potential dismantling of such an historical New Orleans restaurant where, it's asserted, the grasshopper cocktail was invented. She writes:
Dear Mr. Latter, 
Let me start by saying how sorry I am about the recent loss of your brother, Steve. In the time I got to know him through my work with Tales of the Cocktail and the New Orleans Cocktail Tour two things always stood out-- his dry wit and his love for New Orleans. He clearly had a deep respect for the history and culture of our great city with the way he ran Tujague’s for more than 30 years 
Now, I don’t claim to be a real estate expert so I can’t speak to getting the most out of your investment. But as the founder of New Orleans Culinary and Cocktail Preservation Society, I do know about our city’s rich history of dining and drinks. Tujaque’s is the place that continued the legacy of Madame Begue’s legendary brunches and where the Grasshopper cocktail was invented. It’s the home of brisket and horseradish and the beautiful long standup bar that takes you back in time when you order a drink. It breaks my heart to picture the doorway of this landmark littered with Drunk 1 and Drunk 2 t-shirts. 
This city is in the midst of a renaissance — one that’s met with both excitement and fear. Every day brings progress that New Orleans hasn’t seen in decades. But the great fear, one that’s generations old, is that with progress comes a cleansing of the culture that makes this place not a just a great place to visit but, more importantly, a great place to live. Culture doesn’t just disappear in a day. Here one day, gone tomorrow. It erodes slowly as people put the bottom line ahead of everything else. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With what you choose to do with the Tujague’s building, you can stand for the peaceful coexistence between progress and culture. 
I know business is business. But sometimes selling to the highest bidder comes with costs that can’t be counted in dollars and cents. Like losing yet another of our beloved restaurants and a piece of the living history that makes New Orleans so special. If you sell the Tujague’s building to the wrong person, the rest of us will be the ones paying for it. So please, Mr. Latter, respect our history, respect our culture and respect the legacy your brother worked his life to build. 
Ann Tuennerman, Founder of Tales of the Cocktail 
Thank you in advance.
Allow me to add my voice to those who decry the potential loss of such an historic place. If a restaurant must fail, then fail it must. But to sell the building to a businessman who has shown time and again his disdain for the culture and history of one of America's most treasured cities is a gut-wrenching prospect.

New Orleans needs another t-shirt tourist trap like it needs another hurricane.

Goes well with:
  • Laborde's piece Save Tujague's — Please is here
  • A visit to Tujague's while you still can.
  • My review of Sara Roahen's Gumbo Tales. In 2008, I wrote "Those of us interested in the drinking and food cultures of New Orleans savor classic cookbooks such as Lafcadio Hearn’s 1885 La Cuisine Creole for shedding light on the origins of creole cooking. Others help explain the growth of both creole and Cajun cookery, such as Paul Prudhomme’s 1984 Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen or John Folse’s recent encyclopedic tomes on South Louisiana cookery (all of which, by the way, contain an abundance of recipes for alcoholic beverages, sips, and nips from absinthe drips to brandy milk punches)." Roahen's book belongs on that same shelf.
  • Another rumor circulating is that New Orleans chef John Besh is interested in purchasing the building. For what it's worth, I'm interested in purchasing the building. I'm interested in a lot of things I can't do. If you can't make it to Tujague's for a drink, grab a copy of Besh's 2010 cookbook, My New Orleans. Click for my review.


sam k said...

Reminds me of the much-lamented Sheehan's of Amherst, MA, the only intact pre-Prohibition bar I ever spent time in. Stained glass, beautiful old lighting fixtures, and cigar burns in the bar a half-inch deep and a hundred years old.

One time I showed up and found a women's clothing store there instead. The owners had killed the place months before it would have been declared historically significant, and hence off limits.

I hope Tujague's is spared this unseemly fate.

randall said...

Ugh! I hate when shit like this happens. Sadly, this trend seems to be happening everywhere, but seems especially cruel when it happens in NO.

Matthew Rowley said...

Ain't that the truth, Randall? I live in San Diego, where anything older than the 1950's seems terribly old indeed. It is especially cruel manoeuvre in New Orleans which is already rife with tacky t-shirt shops (and a handful of better ones with clever designs for a more local audience such as Dirty Coast or Fleurty Girl.

Sam ~

Sheehan's sounds like the kind of place I'd've liked. A shame to see places like that fold.