The Hotel That Was

Quasimodo once had dinner there.

Few details of actor Charles Laughton’s meal at the Pontchartrain Hotel’s Caribbean Room are known other than the menu, which included three of the restaurant’s house specialties; Crabmeat Remick, Shrimp Bisque and Trout Veronique.

Laughton, who was best known for his 1939 film  roles as Quasimodo, the bell-ringing hunchback, in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Captain Bligh in the 1935 production of Mutiny on the Bounty, was somehow deprived of one of the restaurant’s bounty.

For dessert he only had the Pot de Crème Vanille. Hadn’t he heard about the Room’s signature Mile High Pie?

There was much to know in getting the experience right at the Pontchartrain Hotel. In its prime, owner Lysle Aschaffenburg had converted the 1927 apartment hotel into a swanky place for people of wealth, style and reputation to stay. Walt Disney and Mary Martin stayed there. Then there were Stella and Stanley Kowalski who dwelled in Tennessee Williams’ mind when the playwright was in residence there. Reportedly Williams wrote part of Streetcar Named Desire during his stay.

Locals too trekked to the building – often for dinner at the Caribbean Room or after hours in the Bayou Bar. Then there was the Coffee Shop, noted for its blueberry muffins. The civicly nosy could get a glance at who was making deals with whom while waiting for their Eggs Benedict to arrive.

Hotel knowledge included not just muffin awareness but also that the Caribbean Room’s Crabmeat Remick included bacon and Tabasco; Trout Veronique was topped with Hollandaise sauce and eight seedless grapes, and the filling for Mile High Pie included one pint each of vanilla, chocolate and peppermint ice cream.

Then there were the rabbits – not on the menu, but on the wall.

In the 1960s, the lobby was redone to include a faux marble finish. Very discreetly painted into the finish were the images of bunnies, a hula girl and a horse. What did they have in common? Grand buildings should always have a few unsolved mysteries.

By the time of Katrina the old hotel was showing signs of decline. The Caribbean Room had been closed and the cafe was just not what it used to be. Besides, new small hotels converted from old office buildings were opening throughout the neighborhood. All that glittered was the Bayou Bar where on good nights satirist Phil Melancon would perform at the piano. People would laugh and drink and if they talked about big hurricanes in their lives, they spoke of Betsy and Camille.

Originally, it was said that the Pontchartrain’s post-Katrina revival would be delayed for extensive restoration. Then came the announcement that the building would reopen, not as a hotel but as a home for senior citizens.

Those residents will live in a delightful neighborhood where streetcars clang and the business of the city passes by. The Bayou Bar at least will remain open to the public. Folks will again gather there and maybe some will have memories of early days at the Pontchartrain. The list of stories to tell is quite tall – at least a mile high.

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