Extinct Restaurants

CBD: 125 St. Charles Avenue

It’s hard to believe that Kolb’s is not still around. It commanded a prominent downtown location for almost a century, and was the first name anyone thought of when German food was mentioned. Its premises were so distinctive that no small number of people went there just to be there.

Kolb’s was founded just before the turn of the last century by Conrad Kolb. Its home was fine three-story, galleried brick building built in 1846 as the headquarters and townhouse of Daniel Pratt, a manufacturer of cotton gins. The restaurant became so popular that it expanded into the former Louisiana Jockey Club next door, in a similarly venerable brick structure.

No location in New Orleans could have been better for a restaurant in those times. Kolb’s was just off Canal Street, the center of all commerce in New Orleans. It was a half-block from the St. Charles Hotel, the leading hostelry in the city at that time. In the early 1900s, the French Quarter was in a state of decay, and even though it held many great restaurants, the main action had moved to the business district, on and just off Canal.

German food was experiencing a wave of popularity. Many Germans lived in and around New Orleans–maps of what are now the River Parishes, upstream of the city, called the area “The German Coast.”

And, like all restaurants here, as years went on the menu took on a local flavor, both from the ingredients and the Creole tastes of the patronage.

Kolb’s remained busy for most of its history, even surviving the anti-German sentiments that ran through American minds during two World Wars. It could be that people didn’t think it was really German, since it had been part of the city for so long, and they knew the owners and staff so well.

Kolb’s was certainly not ashamed of its German heritage. The dining rooms were thoroughly Teutonic, with dark wood paneling, an immense collection of beer steins hanging on the wall, and all manner of German insignias except (of course) swastikas.

The most memorable part of the decor was Ludwig and his ceiling fans. The original dining room of Kolb’s featured a marvelous leather-belt-driven ceiling fan system, running about a dozen fans. It had come from one of the exhibition halls of the Cotton Centennial Exposition of 1884, held in what is now Audubon Park. Later, a wooden man dressed in German garb was added to it. A name plate called him Ludwig, and he appeared to be hand-cranking the whole array. (It actually was propelled by an electric motor mounted in the floor above.) One of the further curiosities of the ceiling fan system was that one fan turned the opposite direction from all the rest.

When I finally got to Kolb’s, in the middle 1970s, it was in decline. Part of this had to do with the revival of the French Quarter and the decline of Canal Street as a shopping district. German food was, by then, very much out of vogue across America, except in cities where that was all they had (Milwaukee, for example). Kolb’s was essentially the only German restaurant left.

Worse, the German food was not all that good. Keep a certain menu going long enough, with not enough customers eating it regularly, and the pressure falls too low to keep the bubble inflated.

And, by this time, most people who went to Kolb’s ate not the German food, but the Creole cooking. During a couple fo years during which my office was two blocks away, I ate there once or twice a month, and remember eating turtle soup, barbecue shrimp, baked oysters with crabmeat and hollandaise, roast chicken and bread pudding.

All of this was actually pretty good. Occasionally, I’d have Vienna schnitzel (as they called wiener schnitzel). Kolb’s signature schnitzel (probably the only restaurant here that could be said to have such a thing) was called Kaiser schnitzel; you’d look at it and call it pannee meat with shrimp etouffee on top.

One wonderful oddity passed through Kolb’s for a brief time. Chef Warren Leruth had an idea to make a sausage from pickled pork, the classic seasoning meat for red beans. He liked it, but couldn’t figure out what to do with it at his restaurant. So he gave the recipe to Bill Martin, who ran the restaurant in the mid-1970s. They served it with red beans, with a side of a runny mustard dipping sauce. It was terrific. Then, one night, I came in for dinner wanting to try it again, and it was gone, never to be seen again.

During all the years I dined at Kolb’s, and long before that, a maitre d’ named Angelo ran the front door. He knew everyone, and everyone knew him. I remember him as a very old guy who seemed to have a permanent scowl, but old-timers say he was a nice fellow.

The day I went to Kolb’s for lunch and saw that Angelo was gone was when I knew the restaurant’s days were numbered. With all the offices moving out of the CBD, all the new restaurants in the area, and the continuing suspicion of what had become to most people a very unfamiliar cuisine, Kolb’s no longer had a lunch crowd. Dinner business was very slack. New management tried to revive interest with a long list of new schnitzels with interesting sauces. But it was too little, too late.

And the place was run down. Dick Brennan, Sr. told me that his family had investigated the possibility of buying Kolb’s, but after looking at what was needed in the renovation, they decided against it.

A few years after Kolb’s closed, a group formed to reopen it as a restaurant–but not Kolb’s. It was to be the Jockey Club again, they said, and made a big deal about the great location (balconies over St. Charles Avenue, where all the Mardi Gras parades pass!). But nothing came of it.

And the big “KOLB’S” sign still hangs there. Inside, the steins are gone, the fan system is packed away somewhere, and the old restaurant sleeps.

7 Readers Commented

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  1. Dianna on February 1, 2016

    I’ve enjoyed this read. My interest came from an old beer mug. I always noticed the ink stamp with L.G. AND C. CO.
    and didn’t think much of the picture on it until I queried Kolbs German Cavern to realize, it did exist in all its glory so long ago. I assumed it was just made in New Orleans. Happy to learn this, thank you for sharing the history.

  2. Francois on January 15, 2017

    Great blog thanks for the memoties

  3. John in Oklahoma on March 1, 2017

    I am heart-broken! When my family lived in New Orleans in the late 1960s, we always enjoyed going to Kolb’s. It’s sad to hear that the restaurant has closed. Since I’m planning a trip to New Orleans in a few months, I’ll have scratch Kolb’s off my list of places to visit.

  4. Allen Purvis on May 4, 2017

    I just walked down Canal and at St. Charles I looked left and saw the Kolb’s sign. Ate there with parents on a family vacation in 1956 . I remember the waiter in a tux approaching the table and clicking his heels and bowing slightly. He treated my father with great respect, like he was a Baron. A great memory. And the food was good, too.

  5. Richard Morgan on August 24, 2017

    Worked as a bus boy there from ’88-89, maybe ’90. I was new to Nola at age 17 and Kolb’s was a fascinating venue to start off in the HRT business. Red vests for bussers, green vests for waiters, maybe vice versa. Remember the fan system and Ludwig well but didn’t realize one set of blades were rotating opposite the rest! But here is one fact I found lacking in the blog: the sugar-butter saturated corn bread. The old women cooks would make about 10-15 large pans of it everyday for the lunch crowd and we’d serve it instead of french bread upon welcoming diners to the tables. Can’t tell you how many times I got asked to refill those cornbread baskets! Other things I was asked to do was add the crushed ice to the pee troughs (at least in the men’s bathroom) to kept the stench smell down, and running a few blocks up Canal street to pick up the toaster strudel. Yes, in my time there the strudel was actually prepared at Woolworth’s bakery. I wish I could remember a couple of the bus boys names I worked with. We’d bring the empty trays up there at about 9:30 every morning and pick up the new batches. Phil was the manager and David was the assistant manager. Think Phil went on to Crescent City Brewhouse later. But the good times for Mardi Gras on the Balconies were special. A few more rats may be encountered the higher you walked up, but still a great experience and intro to Nola….

  6. PHW on November 10, 2017

    I looked up Kolb’s because, in his diaries from the 1930s and 1940s, my grandfather who lived in Pensacola mentions going there a number of times and never talks about any other restaurant in New Orleans. Being of German heritage he must have enjoyed the food. Interestingly, though he was furious over the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and over the German declaration of war against the U.S, he still went to Kolb’s for dinner on New Year’s day 1941, reinforcing the notion mentioned above that Kolb’s was not shunned because of the war.

  7. PHW on November 10, 2017

    In my previous comment I should have said he was there New Year’s day 1942, not 1941!