CBD: Roosevelt / Fairmont Hotel, 123 Baronne St.
The present Roosevelt Hotel is where the old one was, complete with the grand lobby. Off that lobby is the Sazerac Restaurant, which these days functions as the breakfast-and-lunch default restaurant of the hotel. It doesn’t serve dinner often. When it does, it’s so different from the Sazerac in its golden years (1967-1995) that I think it’s fair to say that Sazerac Restaurant is extinct. Only the name and the space remain active. Like all the other Extinct Restaurants in this department, there’s always the chance it will rise again, and perhaps even equal its grandeur for which it became famous.
But I wouldn’t bet on it.
The Roosevelt Hotel has a long history, going back to 1893, when it was founded as the Grunewald Hotel. As the Roosevelt, it was without peer among New Orleans hotels. When the Fairmont of San Francisco bought the Roosevelt in 1965, it brought an even greater polish to the hotel, furthering its reputation as the leading luxury hotel here.
One of the improvements brought about by the Fairmont management was a complete rethinking of the restaurants and bars in the old hotel. In the former location of the Fountain Lounge they built a swank restaurant, which they named for one of the two cocktails the hotel was already famous for. The Sazerac was stunning: big banquettes, tables covered with what looked like lace, a high ceiling, enormous flower displays, beautiful china and silverware.
The Sazerac opened in 1967. Its chef was Gunter Preuss, then in his thirties, still new to America from his native Germany. He executed what was known then as a “continental” menu–mostly French, but with a great deal more in the way of service. Almost every dish received some tableside preparation. Even soups were brought out on a gueridon, heated to bubbling over a fire at the table, and only then ladled into the bowl before you. No such restaurant had ever been seen in New Orleans.
Nor such prices. The Sazerac was re-invented every few years into the 1980s, with each advance in creature comforts accompanied by a loftier tab. Only Louis XVI gave it competition on the price and elegance department. When you really wanted to show off, you took a guest to the Sazerac.
Chef Gunter left to open his own restaurants–first the Versailles, in the early 1970s, then Broussard’s, for thirty years until this past summer. His successors at the Sazerac gave uneven performances. Some (Jean-Luc Albin, now the owner of Maurice’s Pastries, and Randy Buck, now the chef at the Monteleone come to mind). Others were too teutonic, and were more about style than substance. The Sazerac was always good, but it was rarely brilliant.
The experience, however, was incomparable. The Sazerac reached its peak in the 1970s and 1980s, when the dining room was managed by the extraordinarily elegant and accommodating Tommy Andrade (who now owns Tommy’s and Tomas Bistro).
That was also the time when the Fairmont introduced an idea so spectacular that it soon became part of every avid diner’s holiday traditions. Every year during the Christmas season, The Sazerac offered a themed dinner menu of five or six courses. All the dishes were created especially for the Christmas menu, and were served with special presentations designed for the holidays. The room was decorated, of course, but most years musicians we never saw the rest of the year came in with their own unique program.
I think the first of these was in 1973, and it was “A French Christmas.” Over the years, they had Russian Christmas, Cajun Christmas, Viennese Christmas (that one featured a talented young violinist posing as Mozart), Swiss Christmas, and American Christmas. It was grand, delicious, entertaining, and memorable.
If this sounds something like the Reveillon, it was. But it would be over a decade before the Reveillon came along to encourage other restaurants to celebrate the holidays specially. And to this day no restaurant has equaled what the Sazerac did with its Christmas menus in its prime years.
Those years didn’t last. The food became less innovative, and the fripperies more jejune. In defense of the Fairmont, much of that was due to the declining popularity of very formal restaurants, where one was expected to dress up, and where the price was very high. The baby Boom generation preferred its new gourmet bistros, and The Sazerac and places like it became dinosaurs.
In the 1990s, the hotel renovated The Sazerac and made it an all-day restaurant for the hotel. When they opened up the wall to the lobby, the restaurant lost its class. The menu became ordinary hotel fare. The management attempted a rebirth around 1995, but it never took off. Then the hurricane came, flooded the basement of the hotel (where all their utilities were), and caused the Sazerac and its hotel to stand empty for years.
The current owners brought it all back to life. But that’s not the Sazerac Restaurant we remember.