by Ian McNulty
Arnaud's Restaurant owner Archie Casbarian died Saturday at age 72 after a battle with cancer.
During his long hotel and restaurant career Casbarian earned a reputation as a gentleman cut from the cloth of the old school, and he had the credentials to back it up. A native of Alexandria, Egypt, he studied hotel management in Switzerland and the U.S. before coming to New Orleans in the 1960s.
He began at Sonesta hotels and eventually rose to an executive-level position managing several properties in the region. One of them, the Royal Sonesta, is just across Bourbon Street from Arnaud's. In 1978, he and his wife Jane purchased the restaurant from Germaine Cazanave Wells, the one-time Mardi Gras queen and daughter of the self-styled Count Arnaud Cazanave, who founded the restaurant in 1918. Casbarian set upon a thorough renovation of the grand old restaurant, which appeared long over-due. As Arnaud's own history of the restaurant notes:
"The place was a wreck. Almost all of the dining rooms had long been closed. Despite that, Casbarian was committed to the idea that the new Arnaud's should look like Arnaud's, not like a brand-new restaurant."
The rejuvenation came at a time when national media attention was fixing on New Orleans culture and its cuisine in particular, and Casbarian's work helped ensure Arnaud's would be in the limelight. A New York Times travel piece from 1984 praised the progress, calling Arnaud's a "French Quarter landmark, restored recently with great care and warmth by its new owner, Archie Casbarian."
It certainly wasn't easy to get a grand old New Orleans restaurant back into elegant shape, but Casbarian came up with some creative ideas along the way.
For instance, when skyrocketing interest rates threatened to torpedo the financing Casbarian had in place for the renovation work, he decided to sell tables to well-heeled customers and local companies. According to the restaurant history, $10,000 entitled the buyer to a personalized plaque mounted above the table and an open house account good for $12,000 in dining over the course of three years, a private stock of liquor and wine and priority reservations. Casbarian got interest-free financing and publicity out of the deal.
Casbarian's children Archie and Katy continue the family line at Arnaud's today, with both serving as vice presidents.
-- Ian McNulty