There was a time when the Caribbean Room at the Pontchartrain Hotel ranked among New Orleans' most elegant restaurants. Birthdays would be celebrated and proposals made between bites of chile sauce-spiked crabmeat Remick, trout Eugene and Mile High Pie. The restaurant faded after the founding Aschaffenburg family sold the hotel in the 1980s. The Caribbean Room eventually closed in 1994.
Now, chef John Besh plans to restore the splendor of the Caribbean Room when he re-opens the restaurant next spring.
"The parts and pieces are still coming together," Besh said, "but the vision is very clear: not just recreating the past but shaping this into a place that pays homage to the past."
The Pontchartrain Hotel opened in the early 20th century as a residential hotel. In 1948, owner E. Lyle Aschaffenburg made the property a "transient" hotel and added the Caribbean Room restaurant, with its elegant wood-paneled room and haute Creole menu.
The hotel would welcome guests such as Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth and Truman Capote and become part of the local culture, from drawing New Orleanians to the Silver Whistle Cafe in the morning for blueberry muffins to providing the site where the deal was signed to create the Saints.
AJ Capital Partners, a Chicago-based firm that restores historic hotels, bought the Pontchartrain last November for an undisclosed sum. The hotel closed in April for a $10 million renovation. Cooper Manning, the eldest son of quarterback Archie Manning, is an investor in the business.
"I was blown away by the Pontchartrain," said Ben Weprin, founder and CEO of AJ Capital Partners. "The bones, the character, the charm, the rich history of it."
AJ Capital Partners announced Monday (Nov. 2) that the Besh Restaurant Group will run the Caribbean Room, the Silver Whistle Cafe, the Bayou Bar and a new rooftop bar with sweeping views of downtown.
"When we go into a market like New Orleans," Weprin said, "we want to do something distinct and unique that also connects with locals."
John Besh on April 16, 2015. (Photo by Cheryl Gerber, courtesy of Tulane University)
Besh remembers coming to the Caribbean Room as a boy for family celebrations and ordering speckled trout with crabmeat.
"That was on the circuit with Commander's Palace and the other great restaurants of New Orleans," Besh said.
Besh and his team, who run 10 local restaurants ranging from the elegant Restaurant August to the casual new bakery Willa Jean, are only beginning to work out the details about the four outlets they will run at the Pontchartrain Hotel. A chef has not yet been selected for the Caribbean Room.
"We have a bunch of chefs in mind," Besh said. "It's going to be somebody with a New Orleans point of view who understands how important it is for us to do this right."
One thing, however, is certain: The Caribbean Room will recapture its storied elegance.