If ever you need proof that the essence and appeal of our city's cuisine is innately tied to the place that created it, just try to dine somewhere that bills itself as a "New Orleans-style" restaurant anywhere outside of New Orleans. Not even the French bread we take for granted here can be reliably replicated anywhere else.
One restaurant, however, is out to see if its own essence and appeal can survive a move just next door. Ye Olde College Inn has reopened in a newly renovated space adjacent to the building that had housed it for 72 years before Katrina, as its owners begin to write the next chapter in the long history of the restaurant from a new address.
It's a rebuilding strategy based on the hope that a restaurant valued by its clientele for an old-fashioned feel and nostalgic ambience is easier to recreate on a blank slate than in the ruins left behind by the floodwaters -- and, further, that it can evolve into something more successful along the way.
"We're turning an old New Orleans building into an old New Orleans restaurant instead of trying to rebuild a dinosaur," says Johnny Blancher, who runs the South Carrollton Avenue restaurant with his father, John Blancher, and other family members.
Known in its heyday as a hopping place where families ate en masse, teenagers "parked" outside on dates and musicians came after their sets for late-night food, Ye Olde College Inn had grayed over the decades into primarily a purveyor of meat and starch for the World War II generation. Emile Rufin, whose family opened the restaurant when Prohibition was repealed in 1933, had entertained offers from entrepreneurs who coveted its large lot -- but he turned them down.
Then the Blanchers came along in 2003 with a plan to take over the business and try to restore some of the old vitality. They renovated the rambling menu to add more contemporary dishes, extended the evening hours, added plasma screen TVs in the bar and even began hosting a "Zyde-Cajun breakfast" with bands playing in the dining room on Sunday mornings -- an idea taken from Caf de Amis in Breaux Bridge that Blancher plans to resurrect soon at the new restaurant.
It was the same melding of retro nostalgia and new energy that proved successful at the Blanchers' other family business, the nightclub/bowling alley Mid City Lanes Rock 'n' Bowl. John Blancher bought the bowling alley in 1988 when it was in a state of advanced decrepitude, began booking zydeco bands to entertain bowlers and ended up with an internationally known venue. Rock 'n' Bowl reopened in November, its neon bowling ball sign among the first lights to flicker back in Mid-City after the storm.
Getting Ye Olde College Inn up and running again would prove a much different task. Like most street-level businesses in the area, it was inundated with floodwater. The dirty brown high-water mark is still visible at roughly nose level on the windows. Even prior to the storm, the vintage building and its equipment were plagued with more problems than Blancher can recount. Next door, however, was the tabula rasa of a 1920s-era building that the Blanchers got as a package deal when they bought the College Inn. Originally built by the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. (better known today as the A&P grocery chain), it was more recently occupied by a sign company.
In the summer, the Blanchers had begun prepping the building to open a combination Thai restaurant/oyster bar -- a plan they conceived with old friends from the restaurant Bangkok Cuisine located next to Rock 'n' Bowl. Blancher says that concept is still a possibility for another location in the future, but the post-storm priority was reopening College Inn.
"I don't know if there are any case studies on how to do something like this, but it's our only option so we have to make it work," says Johnny Blancher, who is 29. "If we're going to do this, we're going to need a home run. We need everything to work the first time out."
Staffing is down from 55 employees to 12, though the new place will still seat about two-thirds of the original restaurant's capacity -- 80 today compared to 120. The slim headcount of employees is one reason the once exhaustive menu of down-home fare has been given an extreme makeover. Gone are relics like the shrimp Louie -- iceberg lettuce, boiled shrimp and eggs and olive salad -- that Blancher says were major productions to make in the busy kitchen and had lingered on the menu largely for the sake of tradition. The much shorter new menu has some old standbys like fried green tomatoes, seafood po-boys, onion rings and the fried veal cutlet, plus the most popular dishes the Blanchers introduced at the restaurant before the storm, such as grilled oysters with bleu cheese and amberjack in lobster cream sauce. A new creation in the works is the "BBQ duck po-boy" -- shredded duck in the buttery, peppery stew known only in New Orleans as barbecue sauce.
Trickier than menu choices is making the new place feel like it lives up to the Ye Olde College Inn name. Though only time will tell how patrons respond, one promising barometer is the bar, which has been open as a sort of test balloon for regulars since January. The Blanchers built the horseshoe-shaped bar in the same style, right down to the woodwork detailing and using re-milled lumber from their own houses. The bar had been the center of activity at the original Ye Olde College Inn, and regulars bee-lined to their favorite spot at the bar as if their names were engraved on the stools. Today, they can still claim their old perch at the new restaurant.
- Cheryl Gerber
- The father-son combination of John and Johnny Blancher have made plenty of changes with the post-Katrina version of Ye Olde College Inn, but the focus will remain on a down-home, New Orleans-style menu blessed with po-boys both old and new.