by Ian McNulty
Little Gem Saloon quietly opened around New Year’s, even as the final touches were being made to the renovation of this long-neglected landmark of New Orleans jazz history. This week, the multi-faceted restaurant/music hall/event space in the CBD continues to gain steam.
Lunch service began today. Like the dinner menu, lunch features updated Creole classics from veteran local chef Robert Bruce. A weekday piano happy hour debuts today as well.
The first jazz shows in the Little Gem Saloon’s second floor performance space begin this Friday, Jan. 11, while a brass band brunch on Sundays will start later this month.
“We keep rolling it out and by the end of the month we should everything in place,” says general manager Chris Ycaza.
It’s adding up to a remarkable turn-around for an address that has sat empty for many years, despite its important legacy. The building is one of just a handful of structures left standing along a stretch of South Rampart Street that had been a hotbed for commerce and culture for the city’s black community dating back to the early 19th century. It was part of a bustling, often raucous district variously known as “Back o’ Town,” “Black Storyville,” and “the Battlefield.” The Little Gem Saloon address has been home to bars (including its namesake, Frank Douroux's Little Gem Saloon) and a loan office where early jazz musicians are said to have pawned and bought instruments.
In more recent history, the building was a high-profile and persistent sign of neglect. But last year, the property was acquired by Nicolas Bazan, director of neuroscience at LSU Health Sciences Center (his son, Nicholas Bazan Jr., owns RioMar and La Boca), and the brothers Charles Clark and Tim Clark, of Tim Clark Construction, who embarked on the current redevelopment.
The new Little Gem Saloon serves lunch and dinner daily, with dishes like deviled eggs remoulade, pickled oysters, crabmeat ravigote, oxtail soup, daube glace, stuffed fish, frog leg fricassee and a sandwich with chaurice sausage and head cheese.
Chef Bruce crafted the menu for a distinctly vintage feel, which reflects not just the building’s history but his own family ties. His family ran Maylie’s, located just across the street (where we now find Walk-On’s Bistreaux), which for was a source for classic Creole cuisine for more than 100 years before closing in 1986. Some of Bruce's dishes at Little Gem Saloon come directly from the Maylie's tradition.
Little Gem Saloon's piano happy hour runs from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays. Joe Krown will be at the keys today, while David Torkanowsky takes over the set Tuesday through Friday this week.
Little Gem Saloon will feature its first shows upstairs in its main performance venue this Friday, with Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns (doors at 9 p.m., show at 10 p.m.).
Little Gem Saloon
445 S. Rampart St., 504-267-4863