A French Quarter Restaurant and the Pre-War Boom

Arnaud’s was the undisputed leading New Orleans fine dining restaurant in the Thirties and Forties. Arnaud’s was where one went for any occasion that demanded celebration. It was the prime rendezvous for businessmen from Canal Street, who occupied their regular tables with conversations of great pith and moment over Arnaud’s special lunches. And it was at the top of every out-of-town visitor’s meal plan. 

The menu created by the Count was vast. Listing (for example) nine oyster appetizers, 51 seafood entrees, and 40 vegetables (among them potatoes prepared 16 ways), it defined French-Creole cuisine for decades. This menu was not just for showing off; the Count chose it to appeal to the entire range of eaters, from the gourmet to the casual diner.

Arnaud’s was a very profitable restaurant, and the Count channeled much of its fortune into expansion. He bought up one adjoining property after another until Arnaud’s 13 buildings (some of which had previously housed reputed opium dens and houses of prostitution) covered most of the block. He constructed an enormous, well-equipped kitchen—still the largest of any free-standing fine dining restaurants in New Orleans. 

He built subsidiary dining rooms throughout the complex, ranging in size from the grand second-floor ballroom with its parquet dance floor to small chambers suitable for sub-rosa assignations. The buzzers used to summon a waiter to the locked rooms are kept in working order. Guests took full advantage of the serpentine network of passageways through the various buildings as a means of maintaining absolute discretion. 

Arnaud’s was still in its prime after World War II, when New Orleans became one of the great travel destinations of the Western world. With Europe destroyed and most American cities starkly boring, the excitement and unique culture of the French Quarter drew the most interesting and sophisticated possible travelers. Dinner at Arnaud’s was de rigeur. 

Unfortunately, the Count’s health was declining. He died a month shy of his seventy-second birthday in 1948. He continues to look down on his main dining room from a large oil painting mounted there. It is flanked by portraits of his wife Irma and her sister, Marie Lamothe. Rumor has it that the Count never could make up his mind between the two sisters. The slightly roguish twinkle in the Count’s eyes might fill in the rest of that story for you.

Prohibition and Classic New Orleans Cocktails

Stories emanated on a nightly basis about what went on at Arnaud’s as its patrons pursued their sensual pleasures. Some of the gossip still circulates after 80 or more years. Many good tales from the early days concern Arnaud’s various circumventions of Prohibition. It was Arnaud’s misfortune to have opened a restaurant the year before the Volstead Act went through. Arnaud, like most Orleanians, believed that wine and spirits are natural companions of good food and good living. The fact that they were illegal seemed a detail.

For example: A businessman brought an associate to Arnaud’s for lunch one hot day. As soon as he was seated, he told the waiter to bring two cups of coffee. “Coffee? asked the lunch companion. “I don’t want to start a meal with coffee!” “Yes, you do!” insisted his host. “You can’t get this kind of coffee anywhere else!” Throughout the Twenties, liquor and classic cocktails flowed freely at Arnaud’s but always under cover of hard-to-find private rooms, mysterious back bars and coffee cups.

Nevertheless, the law finally caught up with the Count. He was imprisoned and the restaurant padlocked for a time. Ultimately, he won the jury over with a convincing explanation of his philosophy. He was acquitted in time for the end of Prohibition. The Count turned his infamy into promotion for his restaurant and the golden age of Arnaud’s was underway.

A Play in Two Acts: Germaine Wells

Just before Count Arnaud died, he let it be known that his successor was not to be the sheltered Lady Irma, but his anything-but-sheltered daughter Germaine. That choice leads one to believe that he wanted to keep the semi-scandalous stories flowing freely form the restaurant.

Only New Orleans could produce a Germaine Cazenave Wells. She was lusty, dramatic, loud and headstrong. Her taste and capacity for alcohol, celebration and men were extreme, even by the standards of today. She worshiped her father; the pair were certainly kindred spirits.

But the Count—and all other observers—doubted her ability to run a restaurant as large and complicated as Arnaud’s. But, fueled by a passionate imperative to maintain the reputation of her father’s masterpiece, she learned the business inside and out. And, even though her management style was somewhat Byzantine, she ran the restaurant with a strong hand for many years. Germaine had a way of attracting attention, and she adored the spotlight. She defined the restaurant business as theater. “It’s a play in two acts,” she said, “lunch and dinner.”

So it’s not surprising that her main achievement was in spreading the fame of Arnaud’s around the world. Everywhere she went, newspaper stories followed, always including accolades for Arnaud’s. Her greatest public-relations triumphs had Arnaud’s included among convincing lists of the world’s five greatest restaurants: first in a Paris newspaper then in a celebration of the two-thousandth birthday of Paris held in New York. To Germaine, the inclusion of Arnaud’s was natural.

“After all,” she said, “New Orleans is the Paris of the South.” In New Orleans, a city full of characters, she achieved one-name status. During the Fifties and Sixties (and still, among people of a certain age), if you referred to “Germaine,” everyone knew who you were talking about. She took to the mock-royal rituals of Mardi Gras like a fish to water. She ruled over 22 Carnival balls, an over achievement unlikely to be equaled. She instituted a parade of her own on Easter Sunday to show off her latest hats, with her friends following in horse-drawn buggies. That pageant continued after Germaine’s death and persists to this day.

Arnaud’s Revival: The Casbarian Family

Germaine maintained in her mind the image of Arnaud’s as one of the great restaurants of the world. So it was that Archie Casbarian managed to pass the first of many barriers before achieving a dream he had of restoring Arnaud’s. 

Casbarian was hardly the first person to approach Germaine with an offer to buy the restaurant. But she saw the transaction not as selling a business but as abdicating a throne. Only the threat of impending financial ruin forced her hand.

The choice of Archie Casbarian as the man to keep Arnaud’s alive turned on a set of odd coincidences that appealed to Germaine’s sense of drama. Archie Casbarian had the same initials as her father.

Both men loved good cigars, handsome clothes, fine wines, Cognac and telling an amusing story. Both were born overseas, and both spoke French fluently. They were about the same height. In fact, Germaine thought that Archie looked a lot like her father. As immaterial as those rationales were, they resulted in a decision that could hardly have been better for the future of Arnaud’s. In December 1978, Germaine agreed to lease the property and name of Arnaud’s Restaurant to Casbarian. On February 28, 1979, the renovated dining room reopened and a long renaissance of Arnaud’s began.

In charge of it was a unique man Archie Casbarian. He attended the prestigious Hoteliere Suisse de la Societe Suisse des Hoteliers in Lausanne, Switzerland. He then attended the equally prestigious Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration in Ithaca, NY. Deluxe hotels were his life for many years. After working in Cairo, Washington, and New York, he came to New Orleans and the Royal Orleans Hotel. As general manager of the Royal Sonesta Hotel, he was across the street from Arnaud’s. By the time he’d reached the Sonesta, he was respected as one of America’s best hoteliers, and one who always had great restaurants in his properties.

Arnaud’s needed all the creativity and managerial wherewithal that Casbarian could bring to it. The place was a wreck. Almost all of the dining rooms had long been closed. Despite that, Casbarian was committed to the idea that the new Arnaud’s should look like Arnaud’s, not like a brand-new restaurant. The original chandeliers, iron columns and cypress paneling were kept. The old ceiling fans also stayed—even though few of them worked, then or now.

The wall of pebbled-glass windows was replaced by beautiful beveled glass—but the spirit was the same. During the renovation, a small section of the original tin ceiling was found and replicated to cover the entire main dining room. Silver, glassware and china patterns were discovered to be the same as those originally chosen by the Count back in 1918.

Most important, the original small Italian tiles that covered the floors throughout the restaurant changing from building to building—different patterns and colors in every room—were left as they were. In collective consciousness of New Orleans, tile floors are to Arnaud’s what the streetcar is to St. Charles Avenue.

Ghost Stories at Arnaud’s

Establishments located in structures as old and rich in history as Arnaud’s are obligated to house an occasional ghost. We believe that the spirits of our guests’ good times stay with us, only adding to the atmosphere.

More than one waiter has been startled to see a gentleman dressed in a turn of the century tuxedo standing in the far left corner of the main dining room at the beveled glass windows. He seems to appear when the restaurant is at its busiest and most exuberant, smiling with a proprietary air.

This leads us all to believe that it is indeed Count Arnaud, surveying his domain in approval of Casbarian’s stewardship. Occasionally when a busboy drops a tray, the waiters agree that the Count is on the premises. Other staff members have seen a party of similarly clad gentlemen making merry at the bar in the wee hours after closing. Could be ghosts, could be the waiters.

Another waiter saw a behatted woman leave the ladies room and stroll across the corridor to disappear through the wall. Inspection proved that the wall had been added in this decade and on the other side is a staircase at the spot she disappeared. The waiter, one not easily rattled, was so shaken that he took the rest of the evening off.

Finally, Arnaud’s rock-solid CPA, the one firmly standing in reality, was conducting the restaurant’s annual year-end inventory in the early hours of New Year’s Day in the Richelieu Bar, one of the oldest structures dating from the late 1700’s. Alone, counting bottles on the bar, he reported a dramatic drop in temperature that emanated from the end of the bar nearest the street entrance. With the hair on the back of his neck bristling, he immediately exited.

The chilly atmosphere in the Richelieu Bar can probably be attributed to disappointed opium fiends who checked in only to find that they had been displaced by the Count’s purchase of that building, according to newspaper accounts of the real estate transfer. Even ghosts have their favorite haunts.

Fine Dining Details: Arnaud’s Tidbits

Lovers Lookout

The mezzanine that runs along the back wall above the main dining room was another part of the restaurant that was restored early on. During the Count’s reign, he used it as a discreet lookout. He also reserved tables there for romantic couples who preferred not being seen. The mezzanine is still a haven for lovebirds.

The Stoopie Bench

Arnaud’s old customers are largely to thank for the faithfulness of the restoration. They knew about details that could never have been discovered any other way. For example, when the Richelieu Bar was rebuilt, it was authentic right down to the inconspicuous private street entrance. But some of the old-timers noticed something was missing: the “stoopie bench,” located just inside the door and previously used by over-indulging customers for a little lie-down before they returned to the outside world. The stoopie bench was quickly retrieved and restored – along with a new cushion.

Bacchus Room

This tiny private dining room, big enough for just one table, got its name when Jane Casbarian commissioned acclaimed New Orleans artist George Dureau to paint a representative Bacchus, Greek god of Wine, to hang there. The room is a favorite for small dinner parties of eight people.

Skeleton Keys

In the weeks following Casbarian’s acquisition of Arnaud’s and the start of restoration, locals were fascinated by the changes occurring in a favorite establishment. Knowing that months of work were ahead but also wanting to accommodate the curiosity of his friends and patrons, Casbarian came up with an ingenious idea. The Richelieu Bar was just about the only structure not requiring massive work and it had a street entrance. He had fancy skeleton keys produced and numbered, then mailed them out along with an invitation to past patrons to come take a look, rehiring the restaurant’s former long-time bartender. From then on, the Richelieu was packed daily with New Orleanians who supervised the revival of the French Quarter Restaurant from their perches at the bar.

Personal Tables

Renovating Arnaud’s required millions of dollars. All was going well with that investment—until the recession of the early eighties hit and interest rates skyrocketed. Archie had a brilliant idea: sell tables. Good customers or companies could, for $10,000, have a plaque placed above a table marking it as their own. They also got open accounts credited with $12,000 over three years, a private stock of wines and liquors, priority reservations and other perks. This not only brought in a good deal of interest free cash, it garnered much favorable national publicity. Although interest rates have come down, the proprietor has been known to sell a table now and then if the price is right.