French Quarter: 725 Iberville
No major restaurant in New Orleans has had as checkered a history as La Louisiane. Its high points were very high indeed. But times have come when its customers wondered how such a beautiful, historic establishment could be allowed to become so mediocre.
La Louisiane was founded in 1881 by a partnership involving no less than Antoine Alciatore, the founder of the restaurant that bears his first name. In its first incarnation, La Louisiane was one of the city’s most formal and expensive restaurants. The restaurant occupied a townhouse, built in the prosperous year of 1837 with such style that its occupants were clearly well-heeled. Its windows were made of beveled, leaded glass. The chandeliers were built in France by Baccarat.
The food was very French. Scoop Kennedy’s 1946 book “Dining In New Orleans” notes that La Louisiane was famous for its bouillabaisse, and may even have been the first New Orleans restaurant to make that a specialty. (Logical: Antoine Alciatore was from Marseilles, also the home of bouillabaisse.)
The time between the World Wars were not good for La Louisiane. Its premises and kitchen were tired and business drifted away to new hot spots–particularly Arnaud’s. After the Second World War, new investors came in with a renovation. But the French Quarter was changing, and La Louisiane lost its main dining room when the building it was in was torn down for the parking garage now behind Mr. B’s.
It was around this time that the La Louisiane most people remember came to be. Jimmy Brocato made a few nickels in the 1930s setting up slot machines around town. He changed his name to Jim Moran and took over La Louisiane. There he got his nickname–Diamond Jim—by wearing an immodest number of diamonds on his person. He impressed special customers by serving some of them a gigantic meatball studded with a diamond. He had quite a few special customers, including celebrities and a few shadier figures.
La Louisiane was on a roll when Diamond Jim died in 1958. His sons Jimmy and Tony picked up where he left off and improved the restaurant consistently. Both were knowledgeable about Italian food, and developed more than a few house specialties. Not many diamonds went out on meatballs anymore, but those meatballs were distinctive on their own merits. They were at least twice as large as normal meatballs, but they were so light in texture that they may have weighed less. They came out on a bed of angel hair pasta asciutta, whose red sauce was both light and spicy with red pepper.
But the dish that everybody talked about was the fettuccine. Jimmy Moran, dressed up in a fine suit, made it himself while standing next to the table that ordered it. He did this all night at seemingly every table. Pasta with a cream sauce was new to most New Orleanians, even those of Italian extraction. That fact, combined with the undeniable deliciousness of Jimmy Moran’s version of fettuccine Alfredo, created a legend that would outlive not only both Moran brothers but three restaurants where they tossed their magical fettuccine. Many of their cooks–notably the brothers Sal and Joe Impastato–went on to open their own restaurants. Moran’s way with fettuccine was always on their menus.
Moran’s (sometimes people left off the “La Louisiane”) had crabmeat-stuffed, hollandaise-stuffed mushrooms that were mind-bendingly good. The fish was always first class. Regular customers would find dishes they hadn’t ordered arriving at the table. Sometimes they were charged for these, but nobody complained, because they knew that freebies would come, too.
Jimmy Moran built a second restaurant in a new building at the French Market in 1975. For awhile he ran both places, but the new Moran’s Riverside (about which more elsewhere) was such a stunning place that all the regulars went over there.
Taking over La Louisiane after Moran left was Joe Marcello, who with his brother Carlos operated the recently-incinerated Elmwood Plantation and the newly-renovated Broussard’s. The Marcellos turned La Louisiane into Elmwood Plantation In Exile. Many of the cooks and waiters from that legendary restaurant moved to La Louisiane, and yet another golden age began–of with a different, mostly Creole style of cooking. But something must have been going with the Marcellos, because in the 1980s they bought and sold their restaurants every couple of years, while the Elmwood guys and their boss Nick Mosca kept moving around.
La Louisiane changed hands so many times in the late 1980s and 1990s that it was hard to keep track. It didn’t help that none of the revivals were especially good. Jim Chehardy, who’d had a big success in Metairie and suddenly closed, was there for awhile. So was hotelier Mark Smith, the owner of Louis XVI. The historic restaurant closed for long stretches of time When it came back after the hurricane, it lost its identity to a Brazilian steakhouse that lasted only a couple of years.
At this writing, La Louisiane is closed and in limbo. It would make an ambitious restaurateur a great–if expensive–venue. Lots of pedestrian traffic passes by, and many other great restaurants are near.
This is one of 122 reviews of fondly-remembered but extinct restaurants from Lost Restaurants Of New Orleans, just published by Pelican. It’s available in bookstores all around town, and full of photos, graphics, menus, and memorabilia.