Garden District: 2203 St. Charles Ave.
French Quarter: 730 Bienville St.
During the exciting proliferation of the Uptown Nouvelle-Creole bistros in the early 1980s, a restaurant in a small hotel on St. Charles Avenue opened. It fit right into the scene, having as its chef a young woman whose cooking was fresh, unique, and delicious.
The St. Charles Hotel (no connection with the deceased, historic hotel in the 200 block of St. Charles Avenue, but a good choice for a name because of the old hotel’s fame) was a new addition to the network of hotels managed by Mark Smith. One of Smith’s other properties was the Marie Antoinette Hotel, the home of Louis XVI French Restaurant, a grand dining salon whose chef was Daniel Bonnot–one of the best chefs in New Orleans history.
Susan Spicer and Mark Smith at Savoir-Faire, 1984.
Bonnot was the main tastemaker for Savoir-Faire. His idea was to make it a French bistro–a kind of restaurant not much seen in New Orleans in those days. He placed the day-to-day execution of Savoir-Faire in the hands of one of his sous chefs: Susan Spicer. She was one of the lunch cooks at Louis XVI, acquitting herself admirably in the making of hot entree soufflees, among other things.
Savoir-Faire was the first restaurant Susan led. Eaters at Bayona, where she has been co-owner and chef since 1990–would recognize the restaurant’s style, and even a few of the dishes. Here already was her signature cream of garlic soup, for example.
Savoir-Faire was open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. I ate breakfast there fairly often, and was always surprised to see Susan there, even after she’d cooked dinner the night before, and lunch and dinner that day. As she still is, she was almost fanatically diligent.
The food was decidedly French, but not in a fancy way. At breakfast, the omelettes were perfection–moist but not runny, fluffy, not a spot of brown to be seen. At lunch, the soups were simple but intensely flavorful, and the seafood was just done and fresh. Savoir-Faire was one of the first restaurants in New Orleans to make a specialty of fresh, pan-grilled salmon–a fish most Orleanians had either never tasted or associated with cheap fish from a can.
The dining room was smallish, but mirrors made it expand. The furnishings were comfortable. I particularly remember the coffee cups, which were built low to the ground but about six inches across. What went into them was above average for those days.
Susan and Savoir-Faire were together only about a year. She left town to cook in France, returning off and on during the 1980s until she burst into prominence with the opening of the Bistro at the Maison de Ville in 1987.
Savoir-Faire left the St. Charles Hotel when Mark Smith ran into financing problems and had to pull back from parts of his empire. But he liked Savoir-Faire, and moved it into the space originally built for L’Escale, his absurdly over-the-top French grand restaurant in the St. Louis Hotel. Louis XVI–which also had its hotel yanked out from under it–moved into the other side of the patio. Two French restaurants operating from one kitchen didn’t make sense or last long. The better-known Louis XVI brand survived, and Savoir-Faire was relegated to the Extinct Restaurants column.