The More Things Change
Pont Breaux in Breaux Bridge carries the torch lit by Mulate’s, with a little lagniappe
The mantle of “Original Cajun Restaurant” will always go to Mulate’s in Breaux Bridge — even if that Cajun dancehall technically no longer exists.
For the last six years, the restaurant and zydeco concert venue has flown under the name Pont Breaux. The “new” version, says manager Skip Manuel, is more or less a shrine to the old.
“When I came in the table covers were 15 years old,” chuckles Manuel. “We did replace those, and got some new chairs too, but it’s pretty much the same. The trademark still belongs to Mulate’s, even, and the sign is outside the door and cannot be moved. The owner just would not sell the name.”
Even apart from its history as a renowned dancehall since it opened in 1980, Mulate’s has many interesting stories.
“The building was originally brought here from Henderson, Louisiana — shipped here in three big pieces in 1955,” says assistant manager Jeanella “Nel” Huval, who has worked at Pont Breaux for six years and, before that, at Mulate’s for 27 years. Huval is one of several current Pont Breaux staff that has worked for both incarnations. “It was originally a dance club on the levee in Henderson called, I believe, the Star Club. Then Mulate Guidry had the place and eventually he loaned the name to Miss Goldie Comeaux, who made Mulate’s a really happening place for decades.”
Head manager Manuel says, “We still get mail every day for Goldie,” even though her former husband Kerry Boutté is usually given the credit for the original idea behind Mulate’s. The story goes, in the late ‘60s, Kerry Boutté of Cajun Country joined the Army and was stationed in Germany, where he fell in love with German art and German beer halls. He brought both ideas back home to Breaux Bridge where he began booking Cajun musicians like Zachary Richard, Michael Doucet, Hector Duhon and Octa Clark. After he leveraged the 1983 World’s Fair into a mega marketing campaign for his restaurant Mulate’s, Boutté’s idea inspired other famous Louisiana dancehalls like Prejean’s and Randol’s in Lafayette — and more or less spurred the modest revival of Cajun music that continues today.
“After the World’s Fair they started getting all kinds of bus tours, it was just remarkable,” says Huval who, like everyone who works at Pont Breaux, chips in doing every job in the restaurant from cooking to waiting tables. “I first started working at a little counter in the back to catch drinks when the bar was full, and I would just stand there and watch all the people trying to get in Mulate’s. We had live music every night instead of half the week like we do now, and you’d just meet people from all over the world.”
Eventually Boutté and Comeaux divorced, with Goldie getting Mulate’s in Breaux Bridge, and Kerry winning sole ownership of the second Mulate’s location in downtown New Orleans. Boutté reportedly lives in New Orleans and sometimes stays above the restaurant, but he doesn’t take calls.
“Mulate’s really changed when Katrina hit New Orleans,” Huval says. “The tour buses stopped coming from New Orleans for a long while after that. We had a lot of cancellations.”
The new ownership though — long-time manager Jimmy LaGrange and his business partner Randy LeBlanc — breathed a bit of new life into the building with the opening of Pont Breaux. They added to the menu chicken and sausage gumbo, steak au gratin, grilled alligator and seafood salad.
“Because it’s not as busy as it was, we now have time to serve boiled crawfish. We never had time to do that before,” says Huval. “People love it.”
Along with authentic Cajun seafood (everything from seafood platters to oysters, ettoufees and fricassée) Pont Breaux also features some of the same bands that played at Mulate’s for decades.
“We still got Lee Benoit,” says Manuel, “and Jay Cormier who used to lead the house band back in the day.”
Pont Breaux also welcomes new voices like Johnny Sonnier, and Accordion Hall of Fame Inductee Sheryl Cormier. For the last few years, Cox Channel 9 has filmed its music show “Les Bon Temps Rouler” live from Pont Breaux every other Wednesday.
Huval says that, with the new efforts, the tour busses are beginning to return.
“It’s getting better,” she says. “We’re starting to get busy and they’re starting to hire bigger bands.” Huval says it’s getting so busy at Pont Breaux, she no longer has time for her own little traditions.
“They’re a little strict on us now, whereas before we had less rules and sometimes while bartending we used to be able to go sneak off and dance,” she says. “But it’s still really a fun place, and quite unique still to have dining and entertainment and dancing all in the same package.”
Huval assures one last time, “Not much has changed.”