THE ST. CHARLES
CBD: 333 St. Charles Ave.
The Central Business District has always enjoyed the presence of private dining clubs with highly upscale members. The Pickwick Club and the Boston Club are the most famous for their Mardi Gras royalty connections. They and the other such clubs are beyond my reach–private clubs can’t be reviewed unless they invite me to do so, and none of them ever have.
But a few restaurants through the years had the feeling of private clubs while actually being open to the public. The St. Charles was one such. Its occupied an improbably grand space in the architecturally fascinating (Art Deco) Masonic Temple Building, next to One Shell Square. The main dining room was the former meeting room of the Masons. It later became a bank lobby. Then a merger moved the bank out.
That’s when that big space became the St. Charles Restaurant, serving only lunch for most of its history, even though the grandiose surroundings begged for a more extensive dinner restaurant. Environmentally, it was easily the equal of even the biggest hotel restaurants.
Regular a la carte dinner at The St. Charles was never to be. It was a time in the history of the Faubourg Ste. Marie (what we now call the Central Business District) when nearly the entire population there was present from nine to five in office buildings. Not many people came downtown to dine, especially not after they’d spent the whole day there.
Fifty years previously, many people lived in the neighborhood, but not in the 1980s. The many large new hotels that would soon appear weren’t there yet. When a famous neighbor like Kolb’s couldn’t come close to filling its dining room after dark, The St. Charles didn’t stand a chance.
And there was yet another problem: the dining room was above the first floor, which is enough to keep a lot of people from even trying the restaurant.
But at lunchtime, the restaurant was ideal. It was right in the middle of the district, a few blocks at most from all those offices.
And, most important, the food was excellent. The menu showed about a dozen entrees and specials, plus a fair number of appetizers, soups and salads of interest. The flavors were decidedly Creole, but different enough from either the grand Creole places or the neighborhood cafes.
The signature dish was oysters Jaubert: fried, atop an English muffin and a slice of Canadian bacon, with a spicy, light sauce and a little bearnaise. Also in wide currency on the tables was a great, buttery version of shrimp etouffee.
The daily specials were the most appealing works from the kitchen. My reviews from the time favored trout with sauteed crawfish, stuffed double-cut pork chops, and panneed veal with fettuccine. Crabmeat Higgins was a spicy, orange soup that made either a good starter or entree. A few salads and appetizers round out the menu.
Getting a table for lunch at The St. Charles was not always easy. The food was good, the prices were attractive, and the service was brisk without being rushed. And it had that clubby feeling. The customers largely seemed to know one another. Many of them ate there every day. They were as well dressed as their counterparts at Galatoire’s. This was especially true of the women, who segregated themselves along gender lines by choice. Come to think of it, the men did this too. If one woman was seated at a table otherwise filled with men, you could bet that it was her birthday, or that she’d just been promoted.
I dined at The St. Charles about a dozen times, and I always found it excellent. Then, one day, I looked for it and couldn’t find it. Susan Spicer opened a restaurant called Cobalt with Brack May as chef. But it wasn’t in the Masonic meeting room, but on the ground floor, where Luke is now. The whole building is now a hotel. That figures.