If you have ever been to New Orleans, you probably have been to The Napoleon House –– an oasis in the middle of the chaos comprising the French Quarter. The building has an atmosphere conducive to relaxing, good times. It is certainly not the kind of place that attracted me and my crowd while I was growing up – it was far too classy for us.
There has been a building at this corner of St. Louis and Chartres Street since the 1790s. The Girod family built the house in either 1791 or 1795, depending on the source of information. Part of the charm of the place is the recurring story that the pirate Jean Laffite was involved in a plot to bring Napoleon from exile on the island of St. Helena to Louisiana in 1821. The original occupant, Nicholas Girod, reportedly offered the house to Napoleon as a place to live in exile. But Napoleon died that year before the plan could be fulfilled.
The current restaurant and bar has been owned by the Impastato family for nearly 100 years. The original serving bar was, for some reason, moved to Maspero’s in the late 1970s, and the current bar, although obviously nouveau, is styled in the same mahogany classic fashion as the original.
If you feel touristy, a Pimm’s Cup is a must. But if you feel more like a local, try the Napoleon House concoction – a Sazerac with Lucid Absenthe – claimed to be the first genuine absinthe made with real Grande Wormword legally available in the U.S. in about 100 years.
A feature of the Napoleon House is a continuous flow, low volume, of background classical music that calms the crowd that gathers throughout the day. Normally, there is a good mixture of seasoned locals and pale-skinned Yankee tourists.
Far too many tourists stumble in during the day, but at 5:00 p.m. the locals gather after another tough workday and the atmosphere is much more conducive to drink and conversation. Old paintings, mainly of Napoleon, surround the main bar highlighted by Louis Sahuc’s signature photograph “Lady at the Napoleon House.”
Part of the movie JFK was filmed here and despite the fact that the movie was not highly regarded, the Napoleon House scenes were special. To the rear is a lovely patio harboring a magnificent staircase that mainly serves the dining crowd but is really at its best when nearly deserted and is even better when a typical New Orleans summer afternoon thunderstorm strikes.
One particular memory is an afternoon when friends from Scotland and I were having lunch, and one of those thunderstorms struck. The rain pouring onto the patio tiles seemed to keep pace with the classical music emanating from the bar.
One evening, several years ago, I took my first horse and buggy guided tour of the Quarter. The driver described each place of importance that we passed, almost as if he was playing a tape recording. When we approached the Napoleon House he said, “And here on your right is the Napoleon House. It was named after Napoleon.”