The Grande Dame gets a Facelift
As we all know, New Orleans is chock-a-block full of fantastic new boutique hotels and a few classic gems, but there seems to be a remarkable trend-breaking movement afoot. In the age of sprawling AirBnB headaches and ride-share nightmares, New Orleans is sticking its foot out and into a new direction-- reviving the old, elegant past of boutique residences and hotels. The newest addition to this growing list is the gorgeous and gracious Pontchartrain Hotel. We were fortunate enough to snag a room at the entry rate, and let me just say, we didn't leave the grounds for a day in a half, because honestly there was no desire to look for anything anywhere else.
The hotel originally opened for business in March of 1927, and rested on its laurels as a golden goose of hospitality all the way through to the 80s. The building's apartments were home for some very notable New Orleanians, and it was the stomping ground of grand entertainers such as Rita Hayworth. Most famously, Tennessee Williams penned his play, "A Streetcar Named Desire" while staying at the Pontchartrain, and it's easy to see why. Just outside the doors the "rattletrap" streetcar glides by on the oak-lined avenue at regular intervals, reminding you constantly in what city you are staying.
The act of arriving to the hotel itself is an exciting experience. Valet is prompt and hospitable, and the concierge is inviting and gracious. They are excited to get you settled and get you on to the business of relaxing, asking if you need porters, restaurant reservations, or anything at all, really. Oh, and say goodbye to those hum-drum plastic credit card doorkeys. Here, you have real keys, and that comes with real responsibility. The front desk will gladly hold it for you when not in your room, so as not to lose it and end up with a hefty replacement fee. The lobby is small but bustling. Joggers are returning from a quick run on the avenue, and ladies on vacation arrive from shopping at the nearby boutiques with their dogs in tow (yes, the hotel is pet friendly, but be sure to let them know before checkin). Before absconding to our room, I set to the task of reserving a late dinner at the Carribbean Room, the hotel's acclaimed classic eatery. It's a hard reservation to get, as it is Besh Group's new pet project, but we settled for a 9pm seating, giving us ample time to explore before dinner.
There are two antique elevators, but since we were staying on the second floor, we relied mostly on the stairs. We arrived at our room, and were quickly embraced by the forest green, pale pink, and supple brown color scheme. Original, actual art hung on the walls. None of those lithographs and printouts of innocuous boats and flowers. The art was actually something to look at, and was evidently historic. A well-stocked in room bar filled with local items gave us the notion for a leisurely cocktail. Need ice? Don't go hunting down the hallway for a machine. Pick up the phone and tell the front desk. They'll have you a bucketfull whip-fast. As soon as ice arrived, we poured a glass of rum and slipped into the complimentary pink plush robes.
After a sinful afternoon nap and a cocktail, Alan and I spruced ourselves up for dinner. The classic clawfoot tub has been switched for a more-accessible walk-in shower. The provided soaps are high quality and sumptuous, and also great for either gender. The only critique of the bathroom? No hooks! It doesn't leave you ample options for hanging your towels up to dry. We turned on the in-room radio to WWOZ and listened to a bit of Louis Armstrong as I finished cleaning up. Around 7 we headed down to the famous Bayou Bar. We could hear the raucous crowds as we hit the landing before the bottom floor. The line for the penthouse-turned-rooftop bar was already out the door; kept organized by a crimson rope and elevator steward. Named for another famous Tennessee Williams play, the Hot Tin Bar is limited seating and the sunset views are to die for, so come early to grab a spot.
A quick historical note about the Bayou Bar-- it serves as a hallowed marker for New Orleanians. It's the spot where the New Orleans Saints were officially brought into being, and hasn't changed much since that era. We arrived downstairs just in time to grab a cosy two-top along the banquette. Our dining neighbors were old uptown locals that had dearly missed the Pontchartrain, and were glad to have it back in its full force. We settled in and ordered a Duckfat Sazerac and their classic Martini (served in appropriate sandwiched glass, no less) as well as a few nibbles. The Muffuletta eggrolls were a fantastic idea, and the shrimp sliders kept us sated until dinner.
As we situated into a jolly mood, famous uptown piano-man Phil Melancon strode in to take a seat behind the keys. In fact, a large number of those gathered at the Bayou Bar were there to take part in his raucous sing-alongs of classic songs re-scripted with a New Orleans twist. Round after round of patrons singing, "Pontchartrain Beach" brought the room to a fever pitch just in time for us to step out for our reservation.
As we walked toward the Caribbean Room, we realized to our chagrin that Alan hadn't packed a dinner jacket, and I had left my sweater upstairs. Not to worry, confirmed the hostess. She asked for Alan's coat size, and returned promptly with a blue dinner jacket and a blue shawl for us. We were then escorted to a cozy two-top in the dining room. Service is in the traditional team style, which I much appreciate from my time with Emeril's. Our captain greeted us, and we soon were served our drinks. Alan ordered another delicious Duckfat Sazerac, and I settled on a glass of Ayala Champagne (served in a saucer-- hooray!). The linens and silverware are monogrammed, exuding a subtle and timeless attention to detail.
The menu was a dazzling array of old, classic dishes interpreted with a new, vibrant flare. We wanted to try it all, so we both settled on the six course tasting menu which changes frequently. We also ordered the Foie Gras appetizer as if we didn't have enough to eat already. It was served with a house-made fig newton and pickled green figs. What a stellar combination I was aching to try the Rabbit and Dumplings main course, and the Captain obliged to ask the chef, who heartily agreed to make the substitute for me. We ordered a bottle of Bachelet-Monnot Pommard to go alongside the entire meal at a steal of a price. Choosing a favorite dish is absolutely impossible, as each were legendary in their own right. The Crab Remick is a classic standby. You can taste the history in this dish. Pro-tip: mix the bacon bits and fat together thoroughly with the crab for the ultimate experience.
I must confess, at this point in the evening, I'd abandoned the documentation of the meal and just succumbed to the romanesque hedonism of the evening. The Shrimp Sake course was mind-blowing. Lightly dredged softshell shrimp served with charred lemon wedges were decadent and bright. The Grouper with hollandaise was flaky and sumptuous without tasting at all fishy or heavy. Alan's lamb was as he put it "a technical masterpiece" at a perfect medium rare, and my rabbit and dumplings was a comforting, rich dish. Finally, we acquiesced and waved our white napkins. Our server was happy to oblige us by having our Mile-High Pie sent up to our room for us to have there. Good thing, too. I don't think we could have survived another bite. We lazily walked back to our room where we found our slices Mile-High Pie. The classic Pontchartrain dessert is a neapolitan icebox pie stacked a foot tall covered with brûléed marshmallow cream and chocolate-mint sauce. After a few bites each, we couldn't resist slumber any longer and proceeded to dream about the glorious scenes of 1940's beach life gracing the walls of the Caribbean Room.
The next morning was a rainy one, though ample light still made its way through the frosted glass windows of our room. Checkout is a leisurely 12:00, allowing us time to relax and have some breakfast at the Silver Whistle cafe. Since our stay, I've heard so many stories from friends and family of weekly breakfasts at the Silver Whistle where New Orleans's elite often met up for a power-breakfast. Today, the walls are still adorned with the same car-inspired ink and watercolor cartoons. Cheerfully period without feeling kitsch, the red vinyl furniture and checked napkins accent the casual and classic fare. I chose a simple latte, hashbrowns, and two eggs. The food was delicious and made plain why the place has been a neighborhood staple for generations.
As we finally walked out of the doors into the steamy New Orleans rain, its as if we had taken a trip back through time. Without exactly realizing it, when we had entered the Pontchartrain, its as if we had opened a time capsule to the 40s. Not an old, aged, dusty 40s that had been sitting on a shelf, but a bright, clean 40s where everything is fresh and brand-new. Where service is fantastic, a hotel bar is a raucous good time, a hotel dinner is delicious, and the amenities are luxurious. Needless to say, as we drove away under those now grown up gigantic oak trees, we hatched plans to come back as soon as we can.