History and myth blanket New Orleans like humidity. There’s even a brass plaque in the French Quarter to note the exception: "On this site in 1897, nothing happened." If the Roosevelt, which first opened in 1893, were to list everything that went on inside its storied walls, there wouldn’t be enough brass to cover the hotel’s stately facade.
Even though The Roosevelt re-opened in June, after a $145 million renovation by New York’s Waldorf-Astoria group, I hadn’t been inside the hotel since it was shuttered after Hurricane Katrina. The lobby was just as I’d remembered it (but now it was decked out in new finery that finally lived up to the image always conjured by the grand people in New Orleans). At the Sazerac Bar, the Art Deco murals still grew ever more fascinating with each round of the bar’s namesake cocktail. The scene was as lively as ever, recalling the days when Huey Long used to hold court there. After cocktails, I had dinner at Domenica, a new Italian restaurant from John Besh and a real departure from the French-Creole cooking at his other New Orleans restaurant, August. The menu features rustic Italian food, with dishes like affettati misti (salumi and cheeses), braciole di capretto (slow-roasted goat), and octopus terrine that are also a far cry from the red-sauce menus at the typical Italian restaurants throughout the city.
As I walked back into the lobby, now fueled by after-dinner grappa, the polished brass and sparkling chandeliers brought back a flood of memories—the Mardi Gras ball when a friend lost the top of her gown after being dipped on the dance floor by (gasp!) her older brother’s friend, the unnerving experience of chaperoning my sister’s high school graduation party in the hotel’s biggest suite (Could it have been the one where Elvis Presley lived while filming King Creole?), and the annual visits to marvel at the over-the-top Christmas decorations with their reams of gawdy glass angel hair. As I passed the Blue Room—the see-and be-seen spot for music and dancing in the 1960s (Tony Bennett, Louis Armstrong, Sonny and Cher all played there), I recalled the most poignant legend of all. My bon vivant grandfather, they say, suffered a heart attack while dancing with my grandmother and died right there on the dance floor. It happened long before I was born, and I’ve often thought about asking my dad whether the story is really true. But I decided it was better to let the story live on. Who knows, maybe some day, there’ll be a plaque outside The Roosevelt.
Sertl Says: Ah, The Roosevelt. I stayed there when I was four years old (they tell me) during a family trip from our home in St. Louis. I went back in college when my team made it to the Sugar Bowl (we won), but this time I was sharing a room with eight other teenagers, all of us old enough to drink in Louisiana (at 18) but not back home in Missouri. I sincerely hope that room has been renovated.