Southport originally was opened at the turn of the century by gambling kingpin Joe Hyland, who offered his highbrow customers a place to play roulette, craps, poker, keno and other illegal games of chance. Reputed mafia kingpin Carlos Marcello reportedly operated an illegal casino and nightspot at the Southport from the 1930s to '50s, and the club still has the original counting room, replete with a solid bronze door and a cement walls. The building underwent several other incarnations over the years, including a stint as a fitness club, until it was reopened on New Year's Eve 2003 by Catherine Foss and Harold O'Reilly Jr.
Now The New Southport Hall is a totally legitimate entertainment venue that is open daily for drinks in the front bar or on the front deck. On Friday and Saturday evenings, there are live bands playing both on the deck and on a stage in a larger hall inside. Customers also can play pool, video poker or check out an antique keno board that still resides on a wall in the back, tucked innocently behind a picture where, in the old days, it could quickly be hidden if authorities raided the place.
On weekends, local bands start playing on the deck at 7 p.m. and national headliners such as Zebra and Little Feat take the stage in the back concert hall at 10 p.m.
"We have a wide range of music, says Foss, "We've had Little Feat and Zebra, but also local bands like the TopCats, Bucktown All-Stars, Mixed Nuts, Blue Meanies, Chee-Weez, Rockin' Dopsie." The variety of groups also draws in a diverse crowd of listeners. "We have a good age range in our customers," she says. "For the Bucktown All-Stars, we had from 21 up to 65 or 70."
When bands are playing, Southport's kitchen is open, offering sandwiches, po-boys and dishes such as jambalaya. For the past few weeks, customers have enjoyed platters of crawfish on the deck on Fridays from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. or "until they run out," Foss says, and now the special Friday offerings will include barbecue chicken, beans and potato salad for about $2.50.
The back room, which can be rented for parties and special events and can accommodate as many as 750 people, has a long, curving bar, a stage for bands, bathrooms and a three-room apartment upstairs where bands can get ready for their shows or rest during intermissions.
That apartment and the bathrooms in the back room are where the Southport Hall ghost likes to hang out, according to Foss and O'Reilly. The ghost has made himself known not only to employees but also visitors.
"Customers tell us they've had various encounters with the ghost," says O'Reilly. Foss says the hall's cook and another employee describe it as wearing a long coat and a Confederate-type hat.
Like the contemporary, eclectic hotel that houses it, Zoë Restaurant and Bar (W Hotel, 333 Poydras St., 207-5018) wants to stay ahead of the pack, offering its customers cuisine that's exciting and never run of the mill. That's the reason the restaurant, which opened as a French bistro four years ago, has reinvented itself as a more relaxed venue that capitalizes on local ingredients and New Orleans' taste aesthetics.
"We felt that since we opened in 2000, about five other French bistros have opened around us," says Robert Rizzuto, director of Food and Beverage at W Hotel. "It wasn't a fresh idea anymore. We wanted to incorporate more local ingredients and local fare into our menu. We call our fare Southern chic.'"
To help with the transition, Rizzuto promoted longtime Chef Stewart Redhead to executive chef, giving the native New Orleanian a chance to revamp the menu.
"Our original menu was probably a little too stuffy," Rizzuto says. "We wanted to appeal to locals and to our hotel guests. We're not your typical hotel or your typical hotel restaurant, and we wanted the menu to reflect that."
Redhead met the challenge with offerings such as Fried Green Tomatoes Napoleon with portobello mushrooms, mozzarella cheese and tomato confit; sweet potato frittes; and a crab and brie grilled cheese lunch sandwich. To help introduce customers to its taste treats, the restaurant is offering Redhead's Red-Hot Summer Menu, which includes three courses for $25 every night during July and August.
"We're always looking to improve things, keep them fresh and moving forward," Rizzuto says. "We've had some very positive comments."
To meet the changing times, the restaurant also has devised menu options for diners on low-carb diets. "We're always very conscious of people on carb-less diets to make sure they can eat our Southern cuisine," Rizzuto says. "That's a challenge. We have sugar-free desserts, brown rice and wheat pasta, sweet-potato fries, multi-grain breads on our sandwiches and [more]. "Our goal is to always be on the cutting edge and to push the envelope. We're the W, so we can take chances. We don't like being stuffy here; we like people to come and have fun."
- Owner Harold O'Reilly and employee Mark Bagnetto share a laugh and serve beers to regular Southport Hall customers (l-r) Roy Brandhurst and Norbert Keanan.