A Hotel Called Pontchartrain

The grand hostelry of the Garden District still calls up happy recollections.

In 1927, the Pontchartrain Hotel rose at 2031 St. Charles Ave. The location was perfect: just across the avenue from the Garden District.

The plan was for a residential hotel, which did well until the effects of the Great Depression took their toll. One of the original owners, Lysle Aschaffenburg, was persuasive and received permission to continue operating it. Finally, in the late 1940s, he became the proprietor, and was followed by his son, Albert, until ownership changed in the ’80s.

Aschaffenburg wanted the Pontchartrain to be splendid. So the Pontchartrain Hotel, the one in the minds of New Orleanians, was born, complete with luxury named suites.

The Henry Stern Suite featured antiques from Stern’s antique shop. Other suites would be named for star patrons: The Mary Martin Suite, The Helen Hayes Suite, The Richard Burton Suite. A veritable “Who’s Who” frequented the Pontchartrain: Rita Hayworth and Aly Khan, Carol Channing, Richard Burton, Frank Sinatra, Beverly Sills, Truman Capote, President Gerald Ford – the list is extensive.

The Pontchartrain had begun with residential apartments, which continued to collect patrons. An elaborate penthouse suite was home to Col. Eberhardt Deutsch, and later to Frankie Besthoff, wife of Sidney Besthoff, owner of Katz & Besthoff Drugstores.

Edith Stern was a resident, as her grandson Bill Hess recalls, “I think she had two suites together. It was such a special place.” It was more like a home. Hess says that one night he and his wife were out in the French Quarter and all he had was a checkbook, and nobody would cash a check. “We went back up to the Pontchartrain and they cashed it. That’s how they were.”

Loraine Despres Eastlake’s grandmother, Dora Stern, lived at the Pontchartrain. “I used to love to go there. The crabmeat salads!”

Eastlake, author of The Southern Belle’s Handbook, published by Harper Collins, recalls that all the elderly ladies depended on staff to undo their corset strings each evening.

Next on the improvement agenda was the Caribbean Room. The décor was enough to satisfy the most discerning: Adelaide Wisdom Benjamin remembers, “Everybody wanted to have their debutante parties there.”

After a brief fling with out-of-town gourmet cooks, the Pontchartrain found its star. Nathaniel Burton, born in McComb, Miss., in 1914, rose through the ranks to be head chef in the Caribbean Room. Chef John Folse includes a recipe for stuffed flounder from Burton in his online recipe collection (JFolse.com/Recipes).

Louis Evans, another black chef, would be the next star of the hotel’s kitchen. He began cooking in the U.S. Army in the 1950s, was hired as a relief cook under Nathaniel Burton in ’69, and took over the top position three years later. Evans appeared with Julia Child on her “Dinner With Julia” television show and on “The Mike Douglas Show.” The Louis Evans Creole Cookbook, published by Pelican Publishing Company, is still available at Amazon.com.

In the heyday of the Caribbean Room, the favorite dishes (according to food critic Tom Fitzmorris, whose website, NOMenu.com, includes descriptions) were: Crabmeat Remick (with bacon and a chili sauce, baked au gratin style); Trout Veronique (whose sauce included white grapes); and Mile High Pie (chocolate, vanilla and peppermint ice cream in a pie shell slice, topped with a high meringue and chocolate sauce).

Longtime maître d’, Douglas Leman, who possesses a phenomenal memory, was a part of the Caribbean Room’s success, but, while it was the grand dining spot, The Silver Whistle coffee shop was the place to go for breakfast and a quick bite. Its most famous menu item? The blueberry muffins.

The food was good enough to create cravings: Karen Perschall remembers her husband bringing home a take-out order. “He got home, and there was my dinner on a tray – with the china, the glass, the knife and fork and napkin – just the way they would have served it in the restaurant! I don’t think they had ever done take out before, but I appreciated it so much and I’ve never forgotten.”

The little cafe was also known as the rendezvous of choice for a changing cadre of businessmen, attorneys and various locals, including both white and black patrons, who would meet for breakfast every morning. Politics was often on the menu.

Attorney Henry E. “Hank” Braden IV, remembers it fondly, “My father would go. And Charlie Dunbar, Judge Maury Sear, Phil Wittmann, Howard Judell, Bryan Wagner, John Ormond … a lot of people.

“Judge Sear would like to open the door. He’d get there around 6:30. The federal lawyers were early, then everybody else. The best seat was the table on the corner, you would have a good view of the avenue,” Braden explains.

The Pontchartrain needed a signature late-night entertainment spot. Next to the hotel site was a popular drinking establishment known as The Stable, with decor that included live chickens. This was removed and the transformation of the Bayou Bar began. Naturally, the Bayou Bar’s piano would be a Steinway. By 1951, the pianist was Charlie Luckow, and he would be there for over a quarter of a century.

Other entertainers through the years, besides “Tuts” Washington, included Dr. Michael Neal, Blaine Butler, Bruce Versen, Mimi Guste and Carl Franklin. Phil Melancon has been the best-known Bayou Bar entertainer in recent years.

Lately the Pontchartrain, (according to its website ThePontchartrain.com) has focused primarily on residential housing, with extended stay units and hotel dining offered for residents. News reports suggest they’ll also be able to offer normal hotel rooms, which will possibly allow the return of live music.

Many New Orleanians would be happy to raise a glass to that!

The House Player

The late Isidore “Tuts” Washington was playing at a private party when one of the guests, Albert Aschaffenburg, then proprietor of the Pontchartrain Hotel, asked him to go to the hotel after the party ended. Once seated at the Bayou Bar Steinway, Tuts launched into a new career, playing three nights a week at the Uptown venue in the early 1980s, where, besides pleasing the regulars with show tunes, he could heat up the keyboard with his Storyville-based boogie-woogie. Along with Professor Longhair and Allen Toussaint, he was featured in Stevenson Palfi’s documentary Piano Players Rarely Play Together.