French Quarter: 714 North Rampart Street
Jonathan was among the most promising new restaurants in the mid-1970s, a time when the big-deal dining scene was stagnant and marked more by Anything Goes than by anything serious. But it was also a time when a major tourism boom in the French Quarter seemed imminent. Armstrong Park was expected to be a focus of the growth.
Looking toward that promising future, New Orleans architect Jack Cosner and restaurateur Jim Maxcy partnered to renovate a building into an Art Deco masterpiece. Jonathan was featured in more architectural magazines than food-and-travel ones.
The three floors were filled with Deco pieces, some custom-made, some from the 1920s. Paintings and drawings by the Deco master Erté covered the walls. Wherever possible, windows were round. Three of them in the entrance foyer had aquariums inside the walls. Early jazz and Big Band music played throughout the dining rooms. In the bathrooms, comedies and dramas from the golden age of radio entertained. The place was fantastic.
Jonathan opened with an enhanced version of the menu from Maxcy’s other New Orleans eatery, the Coffee Pot. That proved not glitzy enough for the place or the crowd, though, and soon a chef was brought in to add sophistication. This was Tom Cowman, who after a long career in advertising switched to cooking. He had just closed his restaurant in New York and was available.
Cowman was perfect for Jonathan. Not only was his food polished and offbeat, but he was highly literate and steeped in the arts. He was perfect for a dressy restaurant across from the new Theatre of the Performing Arts, whose patrons fond Jonathan the perfect place to dine before the opera.
Chef Tom cooked American food in the still-new tradition of James Beard. Jonathan’s menu when he arrived included oysters Rockefeller and Bienville, gumbo, and trout amandine—all but required by law of upscale restaurants then. He replaced the oyster classics with his own assortment of four different and new baked oyster dishes, all wonderful. He made a signature dish out of his cold trout mousse with dill aioli—the likes of which nobody else was serving around town. He served lots of cold soups—notably vichyssoise in flavors other than potato and leek.
Chef Tom’s most impressive achievement was in making aveal liver dish into a hit. Simple idea: he served it with the same kind of orange sauce common on roast duck. It was spectacular. At a time when few restaurants made dessert more ambitious than bread pudding, he baked his own unique cakes and tarts.
As fine as Jonathan was, it soon was found to be in the wrong place. Armstrong Park did not pull French Quarter tourists and development toward Rampart Street. Instead, the renovated Jax Brewery and other new attractions along the riverfront proved to have stronger gravity.
Armstrong Park was, to put it mildly, a disappointment. Rampart Street dried up and began being perceived as dangerous—the kiss of death for a restaurant wooing local diners.
Those of us who loved Jonathan began saying good-bye to it. My last great meal there was my thirty-fourth birthday party. I asked Chef Tom to just cut loose, and he did. Ten courses of dishes whose flavors ranged from Paris to San Francisco to Oaxaca to New Orleans. Some great wines from the overstocked cellar. It was everything Jonathan could be, but wouldn’t be for much longer.
The next time I saw Tom Cowman, he was at Lenfant’s, of all places. (He would wind up at The Upperline, where he found a kindred spirit in JoAnn Clevenger.) The Art Deco artwork was sold at auction. An Italian restaurant tried to reopen in the Jonathan space a couple of years later. It failed, and there’s been nothing since.
Mystery: who was Jonathan? I don’t know exactly, but he appears to have been a handsome young singer and performer in New York who was being supported in his career by Jim Maxcy. Jonathan’s name first appeared on a poached egg dish at the Coffee Pot. It’s still there.