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A pair of passing memories

By Ned Cheever

A pair of passing memories…

Though no shortage exists of landmarks and less memorable places that are no more, a reprise of the memories of some venues that delivered their best yields two gems worthy of their recollection.

Pontchartrain Hotel

No better venue on the Avenue was there for the visitor than perhaps was ours in the year 2002.  The Pontchartrain Hotel, steeped in the history of Hollywood stars and other famous people, was aging but still elegant.

Named for the famous who had rested their bones here, each of the various suites bore a memento of its namesake.  Ours was the Richard Burton suite, and when it was opened to us we were welcomed with red roses, champagne, and chocolate strawberries.  Just beyond the parlor was a pedestal bearing the sculpted head of Marc Antony, the Roman conqueror, portrayed by Burton in the epic movie Cleopatra.

Just as Marc Antony was seduced by Cleopatra, so was Burton by his leading lady, Elizabeth Taylor.  We were no less taken by the spell of the Pontchartrain.  The lingering sounds of the piano still ring in my head with the flashback of the Bayou Bar where Sinatra, Benny, and Hayworth had taken their pleasures.

Left silent by Katrina, the grand dame is now alive again as a residence hotel, but the memories of her graceful past still resonate.  No more perfect was that weekend than is the memory of it.

Cafe Sbisa

Never a household name amidst the many fabled restaurants of the French Quarter, a nonetheless venerable restaurant has gone away.  Cafe Sbisa, or Sbisa’s Cafe, by either name was a happy place to relax in a true Old New Orleans setting on lower Decatur Street.

From the sidewalk greeting of the sign fashioned in the likeness of a waiter, the restaurant opened to the visitor to reveal an appealing dining room and bar with tiled floors and dark wood paneled walls.  Massive mirrors with silver giving way to age faced the walls, allowing a view of the room from many interesting angles.

Beyond the main room was a courtyard for dining and special events, while upstairs, the second floor held even more allure.  Murals reminiscent of the Jazz Age depicted dancers and musicians surrounding the main room from the mezzanine leading to the balcony over Decatur Street, just another setting presented by the 190-year-old building.

As I savored the steamy grillades and grits, our waiter, Tall Paul, quipped with us as he rendered sherry to the splendid turtle soup and refreshed our bottomless mimosas.  A small combo played softly as we dined.

Stilled by Katrina, Cafe Sbisa, from its opening in 1899, held its own although overshadowed by better-known establishments, until the pall of commerce took its toll.  Reopened for only a short run after the storm, the last gasp of this picturesque bistro came and ended in 2008.  Another loss added to the tally of the storm of storms, but from it a memory born.

These are but two places recalled with such fondness, thus one must ask, how many more have I not known?


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