The line between past and present is particularly hazy in New Orleans. Here, nostalgia is a permanent state of mind. As palpable as the humidity is the city’s pride in its history and traditions, the source of its contagious exuberance and the reason its residents celebrate just about everything—be it Mardi Gras or their mother’s gumbo—with unrivaled abandon. No wonder, then, that this year’s reopening of the Pontchartrain Hotel has inspired all kinds of epic parties—like this holiday-season kickoff.
"There's only one place in the world where a night like tonight is possible, and we're in it." -John Besh
Built in 1927 on St. Charles Avenue in the Lower Garden District, the Pontchartrain stood for generations as an informal embodiment of New Orleans’s distinct sensibility. Elegant and eccentric, gaudy and sophisticated, clubby and inclusive, it was a mainstay for honeymoons and holidays, a hushed lair where business deals were hammered out over Sazeracs and—according to legend—a sanctuary where Tennessee Williams worked on A Streetcar Named Desire.
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“Walking into the Pontchartrain was like visiting the home of your glamorous aunt who gets you drunk,” says Cooper Manning, son of legendary Saints quarterback Archie Manning. Like many locals, Manning had watched in dismay as the hotel fell on hard times. Backed by AJ Capital Partners, the investment firm behind the refurbishment of the Chicago Athletic Association, he helped lead the charge to save the Pontchartrain with a nearly two-year, $15 million restoration. Today, its marquee restaurant, the Caribbean Room, sparkles anew with its dramatic Charles Reinike murals and signature banana-leaf carpeting. So does the adjacent Bayou Bar. The food at both spaces is now overseen by hometown hero John Besh. “There was already plenty of magic in this place,” says Besh. “We just gave it a jolt so it could come back out.”
And while Manning and Besh were eager to appeal to the hotel’s old-guard regulars (jackets required, gentlemen), they’ve added a few cheeky updates to entice a younger generation. Look closely at the salon wall in the restaurant’s lounge: Among the restrained still lifes now hangs a portrait of New Orleans rapper Lil Wayne, a sly little wink befitting a town where the most formal of outings often turns into a raucous party. Which is exactly what happened when Besh, Manning and a lively crew of local luminaries gathered to salute the Pontchartrain’s comeback.
Cocktails are the life force of a New Orleans party, and the Pontchartrain mixes fantastic ones, including Mules and Sazeracs.
Snacks--Crab Remick (served here on the half shell) and crispy oysters with fresh horseradish cocktail sauce--also honor signature Crescent City flavors.
In the Caribbean Room lounge, servers circulate with platters of shrimp banh mi sliders during an impromptu concert.
After a round of cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, the crew adjourns to the Caribbean Room for a sit-down dinner. The best red to pair with this rich tenderloin? A complex Napa Valley Cabernet red blend.