The Napoleon House, 500 Chartres Street, New Orleans, Louisiana (photo taken July 4, 2005).
Sitting in the sun-dappled Spanish-style courtyard of the Napoleon House bar and restaurant (see their website), eating a muffuletta, is a classic New Orleans experience. You get to enjoy the grand circa-1797 building, its distinguished, not-all-fancied-up appearance a blessed contrast to the nouveau Disney architecture to be found some places. You get the mouth joy of that born-in-New-Orleans sandwich, the Italian/Sicilian muffuletta. First served around 1900 (many say at Central Grocery on Jackson Square), this fine dish is comprised of ham, salami, pastrami, Swiss, and Provolone cheese on a bready Italian round. (Some restaurants just use ham, salami, and Provolone cheese.) The unifying ingredient is, however, always olive salad.
The Napoleon House heats their muffulettas, though most places offer the sandwich at room temperature. The big, delicious, multi-textured, pleasantly oily sandwich will fortify you, whether tourist or local, for hours of walking or working. — Don't mind the garlic breath.
A robust red wine is a great way to wash the sandwich down, or, of course, you can order a Dixie or other beverage. Mixed drinks are available from the beloved Napoleon House bar. Other selections from the “food part” of the menu include sandwiches and po'boys. Our six-year-old enjoyed a trip to the well-provisioned salad bar. They had cottage cheese and raisins! Yum.
The interior of the restaurant is illuminated with atmospheric “low lighting.” The worn furniture and definitely not recently painted walls create a comfortable, shabby elegance. Only classical music and opera are played, by decree of the management (and, by now, tradition). The Impastato family has owned and operated the Vieux Carré institution since 1914, and the key to its success, at least in my way of thinking, is its atmosphere. My husband and I frequented the place when we were French Quarter residents, and we try to get there every time we return to the Big Easy as visitors. To spend two or three cat-lazy hours at a table indoors or out, talking with friends about Life, is to soak up true New Orleans essence. The food and drinks are ancillary, though they are certainly enjoyable.
The name of the Chartres Street building is derived from the fact that in the early 1800's, when Napoleon I was living in exile on St. Helena, the mayor of New Orleans, Nicholas Girod, offered his house for the use of the former Emperor if he were to escape from the South Atlantic island. (Napoleon had already escaped from St. Elba, so a literal island get-away was possible.)
Napoleon did not ever get to New Orleans, but rather died on St. Helena in 1821. Later, one of Napoleon's doctors during his imprisonment, Dr. Francesco Antommarchi, did live in New Orleans. In 1834 he set up a free clinic for the poor in the house which would have been Napoleon's had he escaped captivity.
But, back to the present. While we were dining at the Napoleon House, we overheard a tourist comment to his waiter about the weather: “We call this a gully-washer.” The waiter responded, “We call this New Orleans.”
Even if it rains, as it usually does every afternoon, don't worry — in a little while the sun will shine on New Orleans again.
Fact: July 4, 2005 photo of the Napoleon House.
Semi-fiction: Old postcard of the Napoleon House.
Semi-fiction: Sarah Mitchell poses with a big “muff” (April 24, 1982).
Fact: Sarah's actual order (turkey sandwich).
Fact: New Orleans ambience (1991 photo, courtyard): David Spicuzza; and David, Sarah, Jonathan, and Patricia Mitchell.
Available directly from the publisher, and at many museum bookstores.
An Affair of the Heart: America's Romance with Louisiana Food
A Dover book available from Mitchells Publications.
The Picayune's Creole Cook Book
Copyright © 1994–2006 Patricia B. Mitchell.