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.