CBD: 322 Magazine Street
One of the oldest buildings in the Central Business District–its brick walls don’t run exactly at right angles to one another or anything else–has a long history as a restaurant. It’s in the middle of what once was the center of coffee trading in New Orleans, and backs up to the old Board of Trade. That was a great source of business, particularly at lunchtime, until the CBD turned into a hotel district during the last twenty years.
The most famous restaurant there was the Bon Ton Café. It opened in 1925, changed hands to its present owners in 1953, and moved across the street in 1972. At the time of the move, the Bon Ton was such a popular restaurant that any eatery moving into its old space would probably have done well just from the Bon Ton’s overflow.
The chef who tried that was an interesting man by the name of Blaise Carmelo d’Antoni, Jr. Noting his full name is important. There were several Blaise d’Antonis around New Orleans, all of them well known for a wide variety of reasons. (And all with roots in Cefalu, a town in Sicily from which many New Orleans families hail.)
This Blaise d’Antoni had been a priest, a calling he left behind (although he remained a devout Catholic). He married, had children, developed a lifelong taste for cooking New Orleans and Italian food, wrote a little cookbook called Bits And Pieces, and finally opened a restaurant called Café Brulot.
Blaise didn’t do a lot of renovation to the old Bon Ton space. It was a little run-down. Nobody minded: old buildings feel good. His menu was a combination of Creole, Cajun and Italian food, with the emphasis on the first two. Certainly some of that was to attract would-be Bon Ton customers, but there was more to it than that. Blaise was the first restaurateur I can remember talking with who made a big deal about the importance of preserving and expanding the local flavors.
Of course, many restaurants were doing that without thinking about it, merely by just rolling along as they had been for decades. But Café Brulot was the first new restaurant to make localism a theme.
It caught on with a lot of people. Blaise was such a friendly guy that everybody liked him. A few years in, he and some like-minded restaurateurs started the first major food festival in New Orleans to celebrate the heritage. Called the New Orleans Food Festival, it thrived for years, then lost its way. But that’s another story.
I got to know Blaise and Café Brulot during many lunches there with Joe David III, the owner of New Orleans Magazine. He hired me as editor in 1974, and we held our editorial meetings at Café Brulot at least once a week for a long time. It was convenient–diagonally across the intersection from out offices. But Joe liked the food, Blaise and his wife (who worked as hard as Blaise did, which was saying something).
I know I wrote a review of Café Brulot in those days, but I can’t find it. I do remember that it served a great dark-roux chicken-andouille gumbo–a rarity in 1974. (Seafood gumbo was king of all gumbos then.) Blaise didn’t like plain dishes. Everything had a sauce or a stuffing. He loved cream sauces, also uncommon in the early 1970s. (Paul Prudhomme would soon fix that.) Blaise’s shrimp stuffing, which found its way into several seafood dishes, was excellent. He did more with chicken than most restaurants, again with interesting sauces. And the bread pudding was terrific. It had to be, because the Bon Ton was (and still is) famous for that, and Blaise wanted to be at least as good as his predecessor.
Looking through Blaise’s little cookbook, it’s clear that he cooked Italian dishes in the time-honored Italian way: you never, ever question what Mamma did in the kitchen. You just follow along.
Café Brulot was a bit inconsistent, and it lacked that certain something that makes a restaurant take off. This puzzled the regulars who became less regular after they sat in a nearly-empty room at dinner one time too many. (Then as now, it was hard to get locals to come downtown for dinner.)
My theory was that Blaise did everything himself, or wanted to. And like the fire that burns over a bowl of café brulot, he may have burned out, and he moved on to other endeavors. He was a good writer, and liked history as much as cooking.
The Café Brulot premises hosted a number of restaurants afterward, including most recently Liborio and Cuvee, and currently The Chophouse. The Cuvee era brought an excellent renovation to the building, making it one of the most charming dining rooms in the CBD.