There have been a lot of changes at Ye Olde College Inn in the past few years, including the address. But take a seat at the bar on a Saturday evening in early autumn, and it can feel like the old days. The Tigers will be on TV, the bar will be packed with people wearing purple and gold, and the slim space between them will be filled with talk of the team’s chances this season –– all while the beer flows and the plates of fried food come and go. If a bar can have a heritage, the story of the Ye Olde College Inn shows just how resilient that heritage sometimes can prove.
Ye Olde College Inn opened in 1933, not coincidentally the year Prohibition ended. It later had carhop service and was known in the 1950s and 1960s as a place where teenagers “parked” on dates. But by the time I started going a few years before Hurricane Katrina, the College Inn was stuck somewhere between icon and relic. The paper placemats would merrily invite customers to have a martini as their “appetizer” before a hearty meat-and-starch dinner, but the most appealing part of the place seemed to be the aura of nostalgia.
The bar remained lively all the while, however. Separate from the dining room, it was a horseshoe-shaped roost where regulars parked themselves at barstools for beer and poor boys and sports on TV. There were old photos on the wall and guys who could tell you the stories behind those photos from personal recollection.
John Blancher, proprietor of Rock ‘n’ Bowl, bought Ye Olde College Inn in 2003, and his son Johnny runs it today. After the Katrina levee failures, the Blanchers were left with an aged restaurant with severe flood damage and, next door, a sturdy and completely empty 1920s-era brick building they also owned. They chose to rebuild next door rather than refurbish the original, and they have done an amazing job with it.
There’s no question the new College Inn is more attractive than the original, which has since been demolished. Ringed with light bulbs around the top and fronted by big picture windows, the exterior of the new place glows at night. Inside, portions of a damaged mural of Canal Street from the original Rock ‘n’ Bowl have been cut into large pieces and hung around the dining room. New Orleans R&B bops from the sound system.
In a way, the place also feels like part of a Blancher family entertainment campus. Last year, following a long-running lease dispute, the Blanchers closed the original Rock ‘n’ Bowl and built a new one at the old Helm Paint store just behind the College Inn. The two businesses share a parking lot, and it’s common for people out for a night of music and bowling to start off with dinner at the College Inn. The restaurant even discounts Rock ‘n’ Bowl admission for people who do just that.
The Blanchers completely changed the ambitions for the food at the College Inn, but the bar up front remains a monument to the restaurant’s past. It was built with the same horseshoe shape using some lumber salvaged from the old restaurant, plus elements from the Blanchers’ own flood-damaged Mid-City homes. The walls quickly acquired a collage of sports memorabilia, which seems to grow by the week.
More important, the bar is peopled with the same characters as before. Maybe more of them are drinking wine than beer these days, and there’s no smoking anymore. But they still order the same off-the-menu specials from the kitchen, and some seem to carry on debates about football they may well have begun years ago when the College Inn had a slightly different address and LSU had a much different coach. Drop by this Saturday evening, when the Tigers play West Virginia, and you might catch up on more than just the score.