A Century of Creole
From defying Prohibition to tackling social media, Arnaud’s has conquered every challenge to secure its place as a beloved New Orleans institution celebrating 100 years of fine dining.
The bridge between old and new is apparent upon stepping into Arnaud’s Bienville Street entrance. To your left you'll find Arnaud’s French 75 Bar, one of the city’s hottest cocktail spots, with its sleek animal print chairs and James Beard Award-winning bar program. The elegant main dining room sits off to the right, and, apart from a few subtle changes, it looks much like it did in 1918, when Arnaud Cazenave first opened his namesake restaurant.
Now, fourth-generation co-proprietors (and siblings) Archie and Katy Casbarian are responsible for maintaining the traditions of service, cuisine and elegance that have fueled Arnaud’s for a century while also broadening its reach to a new generation of diners — all in the context of the city’s highly competitive culinary scene.
Archie and Katy consider the current marketplace a challenge they’re lucky to face.
“We say we have one foot in the past and one in the future,” explains Katy. “We’re never going to deviate from being a traditional Creole restaurant — that’s what makes Arnaud’s so special. That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t change the way we speak to our customers by way of some of our dishes, cocktails, service or marketing. So those are things we balance and focus on.”
This balanced approach appears to be working.
According to the Casbarians, cover counts (the number of guests each server has per shift) are up, as are the organization’s top and bottom lines.
“Year over year, the company is growing, and I feel like we are managing the growth well,” says Archie. “But we measure our success one meal at a time. That sounds cliched, but it’s important, and that’s how you build a business like this. It doesn’t just happen.”
Standing Out From the Crowd
After 100 years in business, it would be easy for a traditional restaurant to grow stale, so Arnaud’s is continually toeing a fine line: catering to loyal customers who expect their favorite dishes while tweaking the offerings and experience to entice new visitors.
“It’s not that we are averse to change,” Archie emphasizes. “We are averse to radical change.”
The decision not to bow to culinary fads over the years has helped Arnaud’s (and the small group of remaining traditional Creole restaurants) stand out from the city’s mushrooming field of new cuisines. In the past, explains Katy, most New Orleans restaurants offered Creole or Cajun fare, “so you could potentially be lumped in… now, there are just a few of us that are distinctly different than that, and I think that’s a great thing.”
One area that has seen noticeable change, however, is Arnaud’s sprawling interior — it spans 11 connected buildings and 17 dining rooms — which has been upgraded to offer some of the city’s most unique private dining spaces.
“Just because some of our menu items haven’t changed since 1918 doesn’t mean you want to sit in a dining room that hasn’t changed since 1918,” says Katy. “We’ve put a lot of thought into the way that we look.”
CLOCKWISE: Longtime, former head maitre d’, Charles Abbyad, right, passes the mantle to Augie Spicuzza, the new maitre d’. Soufflee potatoes. The Counts Room is the largest private dining room, and recently underwent a complete renovation. A commemorative cake celebrating 100 years in business.
Speaking to a New Audience of Diners
This desire to provide an unmatched dining atmosphere is just one tactic to appeal to customers who didn’t grow up with Arnaud’s, a population that has grown considerably with the influx of new residents after Katrina.
Katy and Archie devote a lot of energy to bringing more of these consumers through their doors.
“We want them to think of Arnaud’s when they’re entertaining,” Archie explains, “not just as a special occasion kind of place but as an everyday restaurant where you can have a great meal and a great time.”
The most effective avenue for outreach has been social media, which the company has incorporated heavily into its marketing mix.
Platforms like Instagram and Facebook allow Arnaud’s to tell a visual story of what’s happening in the restaurant. While the audience was initially a younger demographic, Arnaud’s social media platforms now reach an older clientele as well, making it an appealing investment of time and resources.
In addition to updating their communication channels, Arnaud’s is also evolving the way they speak to customers, adopting what Katy calls, “a little bit more of a modern voice.” By changing the tone of their advertising, Katy and Archie hope to communicate that Arnaud’s is a place to have a good time.
“Our service is formal, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously,” says Katy. “We like to have fun. It’s not a stuffy environment by any means, and we want that conveyed through our marketing.”
Chef Tommy DiGioavanni
Weathering a Century of Storms
For Arnaud’s, the road to 100 hasn’t always been smooth. The restaurant was founded by French wine salesman Arnaud Cazenave, who enjoyed bringing New Orleanians the finest in dining and drinking. The restaurant survived Prohibition, during which Count Arnaud (as he was known) found ways to flout the law, ensuring that patrons continued to enjoy themselves in the manner to which they had grown accustomed.
After Cazenave’s death, the restaurant was operated by his daughter, Germaine Cazenave Wells, who continued to let the good times roll. Wells also presided as queen over 22 Carnival balls — more than any woman in history. Arnaud’s operates an onsite Mardi Gras Museum showcasing her gowns and related memorabilia (see sidebar).
By the 1970s, the restaurant had fallen from its mid-century heyday onto hard times, with several dining rooms shuttered due to disrepair. In 1978, Wells sold the operation to Archie Casbarian Sr., a hospitality professional who had made a career managing luxury hotel properties, including the Royal Sonesta (located across the street from Arnaud’s).
When Archie Sr. and his wife, Jane, took charge of the restaurant, they faced a monumental task that included a massive renovation during a period of sky-high interest rates.
“It was very risky, particularly with two small children,” says Katy of her parents’ endeavors. “In some ways, taking over a restaurant that had fallen out of local favor is much more difficult, I think, than just building a restaurant from the ground up. What they were able to accomplish is amazing.”
“We watched them fight for every last person to come in this restaurant and give them a chance again — people that had written the place off,” adds Archie. “We watched them get faith restored by the locals and by visitors. It was a huge undertaking to get back to where we are right now.”
When Archie Sr. passed away in 2009, his children were already involved in the business, but stepping up to the leading role brought its own challenges. These included a severe economic downturn, followed by the BP oil spill in 2010.
“We had a lot of pressure to weather all those storms,” says Archie. “As each one hit us in the face, and we managed to survive that round in the ring, it really felt good.”
Jane Casbarian, Archie Casbarian and Katy Casbarian
Nearly a decade later, challenges continue, albeit on a smaller scale.
Last year a major infrastructure repair of Bourbon Street ran behind schedule (it began in May 2017 and finally wrapped up in January 2018), creating a headache for the restaurant and customers alike.
“The project was long overdue,” says Archie. “But, of course, there’s never a good time for it to happen… Certainly to have a hit in the summertime, which is historically a downtime for us anyway, made that knife cut a bit deeper.”
The siblings also acknowledge that it can be a struggle to attract locals to the French Quarter for dinner, so added deterrents like construction, parking and crime (another ongoing issue) don’t help. But, adds Katy, “Those are not things we just throw our hands up and complain about. We are in there trying to help. We’re at the table having meetings; we do what we can do. But it’s a challenge, and it certainly affects our bottom line.”
Like other local restaurants, Arnaud’s also faces a tight labor market and works hard to attract and retain a strong workforce. Although the operation employs about 220 people, the management prides itself on maintaining a family feel, including many staff members who have been on board for decades. However, Katy acknowledges, “I think it will always be a challenge in this city.”
Top Left: Speckled Trout Amandine | Bottom: French 75 cocktail
A Year to Celebrate
As its 100th anniversary unfolds, Arnaud’s has plenty of reasons to raise a glass, and Katy and Archie say they don’t take any of it for granted.
“Growing up, the majority of our lives were spent here,” says Archie. “We saw what it takes, how difficult it was to turn the ship around… the blood, sweat and tears and struggles of making it happen. We really feel that we are a part of something bigger than us. There aren’t a lot of companies, let alone restaurants, that have been around for a hundred years, so it’s an honor to be another generation taking care of this place and being part of its history.”
Dishes that Stand the Test of Time
Arnaud’s best-selling dishes haven’t changed much over the years. The No. 1 spot for appetizers goes to Shrimp Arnaud (their version of shrimp remoulade), which has been on the menu since the restaurant’s inception. The baked oyster appetizers also remain as popular as they were in Arnaud’s early days.
For entrees, the gulf fish Pontchartrain and the filet mignon au poivre, which were added to the menu mix during the third generation of ownership, top the list.
Servers work a busy Sunday brunch. In the background, formal portraits of Jane and Archie Casbarian Sr. have joined their predecessors on the walls of the main dining room.
MARK YOUR CALENDAR
Arnaud’s anniversary celebration will take place throughout 2018, with a series of events honoring the restaurant’s generations of ownership. The following events will be open to the public:
Cocktails in the Count’s Room, honoring Count Arnaud Cazenave (years of ownership: 1918-1948)
Thursday, May 10, 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Germain’s Champagne Campaign, honoring Germaine Cazenave Wells (years of ownership: 1948-1978)
Friday, Sept. 21, 12 p.m. to 3 p.m.
Arnaud’s is also planning throwback specials, prix-fixe menus and commemorative cocktail glasses to be introduced throughout the year.
The James Beard Foundation honors Arnaud’s French 75 Bar
When Arnaud’s French 75 took home the James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program in 2017 (after several previous nominations), the effect was palpable. “People would come in just wanting to see the medal,” laughs Archie.
That win came as the result of years of hard work by head bartender Chris Hannah and his team, who helped realize a vision for the bar first held by Jane and Archie Casbarian Sr.
“We were especially proud because we knew our father was looking down,” says Katy. “Anytime you can be recognized on a national level amongst people that you idolize is quite an honor. It was thrilling for us.”
The recognition has also raised the bar for success.
“After winning that award, the most important thing is to do even better than what we did before,” says Archie. “That’s the new goal – to get back on that stage.”
French 75 cocktails in a commemorative champagne flute.
Timeline of notable events
1918: "Count" Arnaud Cazenave opens the restaurant that bears his name.
1920-1933: Prohibition. Arnaud’s keeps the spirits flowing through coffee cups and private rooms until the count is jailed and the restaurant closes — briefly.
1948: Germaine Cazenave Wells assumes the role of proprietress and spreads Arnaud’s fame worldwide. The restaurant enjoys a boom, then a gradual decline by the 1970s.
1978: Jane and Archie Casbarian Sr. purchase the then-run-down restaurant and begin restoring it to its former glory.
1994: Remoulade, an adjacent café and oyster bar facing Bourbon Street, is introduced to offer a more casual dining experience.
2003: Arnaud’s unveils its French 75 Bar, showcasing classic cocktails and high-end spirits.
2009: Siblings Archie and Katy Casbarian take over Arnaud’s operations, introducing the historic restaurant to a new generation of locals and visitors.
2017: Arnaud’s French 75 Bar wins the James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program.
2018: Arnaud’s celebrates its 100th anniversary.
Arnaud’s has seen its share of famous faces over the years. Katy and Archie recall a couple of notable moments:
During their fundraising efforts after Hurricane Katrina, former presidents Bush (Sr.) and Clinton dined at Arnaud’s with Ellen DeGeneres. “As many celebrities and musicians as we’ve had here, I have never seen that level of interest,” says Katy. “Everyone was trying to go to the table. We had to put staff around the table just to block people so they wouldn’t be bothered and could actually enjoy their meal. We had Bono here recently — he is like a rock god — and it didn’t even compare to the way people reacted to [Bush and Clinton].”
Archie also shares a memory of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who were dining at Arnaud’s one evening during Mardi Gras: “At the time, they were probably the two most recognizable people on the planet, and they wanted to take a stroll down Bourbon Street, which they couldn’t do without being mobbed. Our director of sales grabbed two Mardi Gras masks. They put those on and strolled up the street, and nobody had a clue of who they were. Where else would that happen?”
Germaine Cazenave Wells Mardi Gras Museum
For a taste of Carnival nostalgia, visit Arnaud’s upstairs museum, which houses costumes and memorabilia from the Cazenave family, including the Empress gown worn by Germaine’s mother, Lady Irma, when she reigned as queen of Iris in 1941. The museum is free and open to the public during restaurant hours, seven days a week.