There are life-altering moments in a young man’s life, incidents and accidents that forever imprint themselves into memory and longing.
Your first kiss. Your first car. Your first concert. Your first significant fish. And your first drink in New Orleans.
I am no longer a young man. And, truth be told, I have not yet caught a significant fish. But the first barroom I ever entered in New Orleans was Tujague’s.
It was Thanksgiving week, 1980. My college housemate and I had ditched classes back at the University of Wisconsin to take a road trip. We started at South Padre Island, Texas, but a late season tropical storm chased us away. We drove to the Florida panhandle to resume our camping expedition.
On the way, we passed the exit signs for New Orleans on I-10 and looked at each other, each with the same unspoken notion. New Orleans. Obviously, we’d heard stories. Everybody’s heard stories.
As fate would have it, the storm kicked east, to the Florida panhandle. Proprietors of the campground where we were staying told us we had to leave. So we packed up our gear and got in the car. We didn’t need to talk about it. We knew where we were going next.
We pulled off the interstate in New Orleans and found our way to the French Market. We parked and started walking aimlessly with no map, no idea where we were or what we were doing. We were 20.
While walking up Decatur Street, we were – I can only say “beckoned,” maybe even “seduced” – by that big beautiful vertical green neon sign that says “Tujague’s” at the corner of Wilkerson Row. It was like that famous star in the birth of Jesus story, except we were two decidedly unwise men on a journey of considerably lesser import.
We opened the door and walked into the year 1890 and my life was forever changed. That long mahogany bar. That huge mirror behind it, with all those exotic liquor bottles beneath it.
There were no stools, just a brass rail for patrons to rest a leg upon while bellied up to the bar. And that’s how it remains today.
It was smoke-filled, dimly lit, with a row of ceiling fans overhead, all of them turning slowly, none of them at the same speed. The bartender had a fancy mustache and wore a crisp white shirt and black bow tie. In the backrooms, we could hear restaurant diners speaking in muffled tones with indecipherable accents.
It felt like we had walked into a movie. And I knew right away: This was my movie.
It would be four years later, when I moved to New Orleans, that I actually learned how to pronounce Tujague’s. Two Jacks. It was the name of the family that first opened the bar and restaurant in 1856, serving what was then called a “butcher’s breakfast,” for the meat packers and purveyors in the French Market.
It’s now called brunch.
Tujague’s is the second oldest restaurant in New Orleans; Antoine’s has been around since 1840. And though I’ve spent many a lost weekend at Tujague’s over the years, I only ate there once, with my parents back in the ‘80s.
The 1980s, for the record. We had brisket. Because that’s what you have at Tujague’s. It is a beloved institution, cherished even. And it is moving to a new location. And, as New Orleanians can be about change, this is disconcerting news.
But it’s not the first time Tujague’s has changed its location. It moved from its original address at 811 Decatur Street to 823 in 1910. So there’s that. But still. And now it’s moving to 429 Decatur, the former home of the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. The transition is expected to be completed next summer.
The new location is in an equally old building. Plenty of history there, I’m sure. But, oh, the horror.
Will it be the same? That’s impossible. And what about the alleged ghost that wanders around upstairs randomly breaking china, as the legend goes; although I’ve always figured such kerfuffles were the result of the vigorous activities of over-served patrons, not apparitions.
But what if? Will he – or she – also make the move? And all the other history, the stories, the politics, the arguments, the laughter and forgetting? Will it move also? Will it transition? Will it translate?
Will some other naive, befuddled young man walk in there some night and look around and say: This is where I want to live? .