When growing up as the youngest child in a family, there are certain statements that send a quiet discontent through you. For me, one of those statements was, “We are staying in a hotel tonight.” As the youngest and smallest, that meant sleeping on the cot that was more springs than mattress and swimming in a chlorinated pool that was a guaranteed eye burner.
But those days are over, and hotels are now a place to wonder about rather than fear. And there was much to wonder about right when I walked into the expansive lobby of The Old No. 77 Hotel. Its roots date back to 1854, when it was a warehouse serving the Port of New Orleans, and many of us may remember it as The Ambassador Hotel.
Among the brick and timber walls, this hotel is full of stories, including the name of the place. The number 77 was the original address of the building that now sits at 535 Tchoupitoulas Street. When talking with Tess Burick, PR and Marketing Manager, she explains, “That’s how we got the name for a lot of the parts of the hotel.” There were ideas thrown back and forth, but it was the names with stories that eventually triumphed.
Take the attached restaurant Compére Lapin. At first glance it may look like just another French name, but its inspiration trails back to chef Nina Compton. That’s right, the Nina Compton, the contestant on Top Chef New Orleans (Season 11), who fell in love with the city during the show and was looking for a way to come back. And she did come back — not only by being the chef at Compére Lapin but also by being the inspiration behind the name.
Compére Lapin means “brother rabbit,” and comes from Compton’s childhood in St. Lucia, where she read traditional Caribbean folktales featuring a mischievous rabbit. “Compère Lapin was a trickster, always up to something, and stories of his adventures thrilled me as a kid,” Compton says.
Mischief? Cute animal? Antics? New Orleans? That sounds like a fit. And it was. The moment the team heard the name, “There was no question that we would name the restaurant that,” says Tess.
Connecting to New Orleans through the chefs and the name of the hotel aren’t the only vein that The Old No. 77 is creating. There are t-shirts from Dirty Coast, sweets from Sucré, and accoutrements around the hotel telling stories of the building’s history, including the lights shaped like coffee grinders which nod to the time when the space was a coffee warehouse before being purchased by E.J. Hart & Company. Add to that the fact that the beverage program at Compère Lapin is helmed by Ricky Gomez, a native of New Orleans who helped re-open Commander’s Palace after Hurricane Katrina, and you’re starting to get the picture about the hotel’s emphasis on fitting into New Orleans.
Then there’s the art. It’s not just for gazing as you walk the halls of the hotel. Works by six students from NOCCA’s upper level visual arts programs were selected to be reproduced and displayed in the hotel and guest rooms. The lobby is home to a gallery with rotating art curated by NOCCA, featuring works by the school’s students, faculty and alumni.
Like I said, though, it’s not just for gazing (although this is a great way to pleasure the eyes while having a drink or sitting in the lobby). The art is available for purchase, with proceeds going to the artist. The pieces have small barcodes next to them that can be scanned with a Smartphone and, voila, you can purchase the piece right then and there.
Catherine Todd, co-founder of Where Y’Art, which also partners with The Old No. 77 to display and sell art, told me a story about one of their past art shows at the hotel. It was a giant success and “one of the cooks ended up buying one of the art pieces, which made it even more special.” The art is accessible in a new way, and if there is one thing we love in New Orleans, it is helping out our artists and supporting the local scene that makes New Orleans … well, New Orleans.
That’s the vibe that The Old No. 77 is cultivating. On a rainy day – like the one I had when there – the soft lighting, bright drinks, and sweet smells from the kitchen make you feel right at home.