This story first appeared in the October issue of the PRC’s Preservation in Print magazine. Interested in getting more preservation stories like this delivered to your door each month? Become a member of the PRC for a subscription!
As New Orleans celebrates its tricentennial, one of its most storied French Creole restaurants also is marking a major milestone. This year, Arnaud’s celebrates 100 years of serving trout meuniere, oysters Rockefeller and golden soufflé potatoes from its French Quarter dining rooms.
Founded in 1918, the restaurant has been operated throughout the years by just two families — the Cazenaves, who founded it, and the Casbarians, who have owned it since 1978.
When Jane and Archie Casbarian Sr. took over, the restaurant was in dire need of restoration. Pigeons had roosted in the upper floors. But the Casbarians felt drawn to Arnaud’s history, food and tradition, and for 40 years, poured their heart and soul — and plenty of cognac — into the Bienville Street eatery.
Jane Casbarian, along with daughter Katy and son Archie Jr., now carry the torch as co-proprietors since the passing of Archie Sr. in 2009.
Arnaud’s celebrates 100 years of serving Creole cuisine in the French Quarter. Photos courtesy Arnaud’s Restaurant.
The restaurant was founded by Arnaud Cazenave, known as the Count, an eccentric French wine salesman-turned-restaurateur whose commitment to classic French Creole cuisine soon brought Arnaud’s to the forefront of New Orleans’ fine dining scene. His success grew the business — quite literally — as he bought and connected adjacent buildings until the complex took up nearly an entire French Quarter block.
Before his death in 1948, Cazenave named his daughter, Germaine Wells, as his successor. Wells, a bon vivant and Carnival queen, had a penchant for drama as well as a hearty appetite for food, celebration and alcohol. To this day, a small museum filled with her Mardi Gras gowns and regalia honors her on the second floor of the restaurant. “Her personality and her love of show business and flair really helped to spread the word of Arnaud’s around the world,” said Archie Casbarian Jr.
The grandeur of Arnaud’s heyday had faded by the time the Casbarians bought it in 1978. The roof leaked; the building had deferred maintenance issues; and the restaurant had begun to fall out of favor with many New Orleanians. The Casbarians faced the daunting task of both restoring the historic property and reinvigorating the menu.
Tackling a little bit of the renovation at a time, they started with a new kitchen that could cook for 1,000 guests and then set out to restore the main dining room. The Casbarians reconfigured the space, removed a non-historic fireplace that caused the roof to sag, and uncovered the original fluted iron columns that had been hidden beneath boxy, contemporary additions.
Arnaud’s main dining room was meticulously restored by the Casbarian family to its turn-of-the-20th-century grandeur. Photos courtesy Arnaud’s Restaurant.
Today, Arnaud’s main dining room is its crowning jewel. The space has a timeless look that is undeniably New Orleans. Ornate chandeliers and original fans hang above guests’ heads as portraits of the restaurant’s present and past proprietors keep watch over the room. Cypress paneling on the walls contrasts with a whitewashed tin ceiling and fluted iron columns. Italian hexagonal tile floors are arranged in a geometric mosaic.
“This space is among the most restored,” Katy Casbarian said. “With our other spaces, we’ve taken more creative liberty over the years and redesigned them often, but this room has stayed, for the most part, the same.”
Today, the Arnaud’s complex occupies 11 adjacent buildings — the oldest dating to the 18th century — on one block in the French Quarter. Its 17 dining rooms are able to seat more than 1,000 guests at a time. Each of its dining rooms has a distinct look, with interior designs that draw inspiration from different eras — from French Regency to Art Deco.
Much like the design of its space, Arnaud’s menu blends timeless classics with newer dishes. To celebrate its 100th anniversary this year, Arnaud’s has been bringing back several items that have appeared on the menu during the restaurant’s history.
The celebrations will continue on Nov. 29, when the restaurant hosts a Centennial Gala as the Casbarians look to the restaurant’s future and work to continue their family’s legacy.