Adecade of New Year’s Eves have begun since the last day of 1986 when a few of us gathered for lunch. Time’s passage reverberated from the walls around us and was reflected in the few other faces in the room, all with apprehensive expressions. Let alone the end of the year, this was the end of an era. It was closing day at Maylie’s.
We were among the last of a new generation to discover the old French Creole restaurant on Poydras Street. By then its presence was appreciated largely for its past. History oozed from the place like the splashes of water poured from the crystal carafes on each table. (According to Willie Maylie, the restaurant’s final proprietor, the business opened in 1876, “the same year as Custer’s last stand.”) The heyday for the restaurant, which was surpassed only by Antoine’s in longevity, was the turn of the century when there were fewer restaurants and more people living nearby. Originally known as Maylie & Esparbe, the place was said to have introduced table d’hote (a complete meal with limited choices at a fixed price) dining to the city.
Across the street from the restaurant once stood the Poydras market, part of the busy commerce of the neighborhood. Gallier Hall, which then was still the seat of local government, was only a couple of blocks away. One can imagine lunch time at Maylie’s crowded with politicians and entrepreneurs, all men, dressed fastidiously in the suits of that day, their bowlers removed while they stood at the bar. The air was cluttered with conversation and clouded with smoke from smoldering cigars.
Power lunches occurred at every table a century before that term evolved. Politics was so much a part of the tapestry that the house’s specialty drink, the Roffignac, was named after a former mayor, Louis Phillipe de Roffignac, the last of the city’s executives to have been born in France.
During the life time of Maylie’s, Poydras Street prospered, declined and was revived, again. But the new Poydras, widened and towered with high rises, was a different world from what the old Maylie’s had experienced. The population had moved – so had City Hall – and the Poydras market was long gone. The street was busy from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but the sidewalks, like Maylie’s tables, were empty at night.
Through its last days, there was still a Maylie in the kitchen. Willie Maylie, a soft spoken man with a pencil-thin moustache, performed much of the shopping and cooking chores. His wife, Annabelle, a handsome woman with a social pedigree, watched over the front of the restaurant. Most evenings there was need for only one waiter and he seemed to have come with the building. He was a tall, gaunt, expressionless man who moved at a deliberate pace as though not to hurry time’s passing.
Eggs Remoulade, a Maylie’s classic, was still the appetizer of choice through til the end: Two halved, deviled eggs were topped with the piquant house specialty remoulade sauce. In those days when Portobello, pasta pesto, and talapiai were still unheard of, the selections were old school as they should have been: perhaps panned veal, boiled brisket, the lightly pan-fried trout.
Meals could be good, even distinguished, but what really punctuated the Maylie’s experience was the setting – a wonderful building that was a bit tattered in spots. though the aging seemed to add to its tropical charm. It was a magnificent two-story West Indies structure, sided by a small courtyard from which a wisteria vine climbed, as though to embrace the building for eternity.
After that New Year’s Eve closing the eternity seemed challenged by notions that the building might be razed for a hotel. Instead, it was modified and became the site of a Smith & Wollensky steakhouse. The business never returned after Katrina and the building is once again empty, but there is still the vision of Maylie’s. From the Poydras neutral ground looking at the building, squint your eyes as though to block out the high-rises and the old restaurant of the past seems to be there. The table, one can imagine, is still waiting.