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Tujague's is New Orleans Royalty
Owner Mark Latter on this French Quarter restaurant's history and hospitality
New Orleans is one of the United States’ most exciting food cities with restaurants ranging from tiny storefronts offering fried chicken and catfish to fine-dining affairs at James-Beard-winning restaurants.
The city is also home to a number of restaurants steeped in history. Though the average lifespan of a restaurant is less than ten years, that rule seems to not apply to New Orleans with restaurants like Antoine’s, Galatoire’s, and Commander’s Palace all having served the community for decades.
One of the oldest restaurants in New Orleans is Tujaque’s, located in the French Quarter. The restaurant, opened in 1856 by Guillaume and Marie Abadie Tujague, is currently the second-oldest restaurant in New Orleans (founded in 1840, Antione’s bears the distinction of being the oldest). The restaurant, known for its prix-fixe Creole menu, is also the birthplace of the Grasshopper cocktail. In 1982, Steven and Stanford Latter purchased the iconic restaurant, changing only a few things. In 2013, Steven’s son, Mark took over the restaurant after his father’s unexpected death giving the restaurant a facelift and making one major change: for the first time in its history, Tujague’s now offered printed menus on which it served a la carte offerings (previously it only offered the traditional five-course menu).
What didn’t change over the years and the management changes? The quality of food and the impressive service. I recently had dinner at Tujagues’s, while I was in town for Tales of the Cocktail — New Orleans’ annual weeklong celebration of imbibing spirits.
Before dinner, my friend and I had plans to stop at a Liquid Death and Havana Club Rum-sponsored gothic tea party. Needless to say, the party ran late and the walk proved to be longer than we had anticipated. In other words, we were super late. I walked in sheepishly apologizing only to be greeted with a friendly smile and open arms. And the food? I can only say that if someone posed one of those “if you were stranded on a deserted island and could only eat one thing for the rest of your life” questions, the chicken mushroom soup I was served at Tujague’s would be a strong contender.
But, more than the food (which was excellent - don’t sleep on the extra creamy shrimp and grits) and drink (skip the dessert and have a grasshopper instead to end the meal), was the feeling that, indeed, you were welcome here.
I spoke with owner Mark Latter about how to keep a restaurant relevant for the better half of two centuries, spirits in the attic, and what the correct pronunciation of this classic restaurant is, anyway?
Broken Palate: Tujague’s is one of New Orleans’ grand dames, serving traditional Creole treasures. But after all these years, I’ll bet people still mispronounce the name. Can you solve the mystery, please?
Mark Latter: Nine-and-a-half out of ten people mispronounce the na,e of the restaurant. I think most of our accounts with our vendors are misspelled. It’s pronounced “Two-Jacks”. When a guest asks me to pronounce the name, my response is - you go first. Then I laugh with them.
BP: So what is the secret of keeping a restaurant alive for over a century and a half?
ML: I think much of Tujague’s longevity is due to the fact that we are in New Orleans. There’s so much tradition and culture here and people respect that. Also, the operators have been running the restaurant the right way and keeping traditions throughout the years.
BP: You actually broke one of Tujague’s long-standing traditions in 2013 by offering a la carte items.
ML: Yes. From 1856 through 2013, Tujague’s only offered a five-course prix-fixe menu. In 1982, when my father took over the restaurant, there was literally only one entree available for dinner. He introduced four entrees, but there was still no menu to peruse: You would get a shrimp remoulade, a gumbo, and our famous boiled beef brisket with horseradish. My dad offered a steak, a poultry, and a fish, as well. When my father passed away in 2013 and I took over the restaurant, I introduced an a la carte menu.
BP: So many classic cocktails were invented in New Orleans and Tujague’s has its own in the Grasshopper. Can you share some of its history?
ML: The Grasshopper was invented by Philibert Guichet, the uncle of the current owners of the restaurant in 1918. He went to New York for a cocktail competition and created the Grasshopper. The cocktail won second place and he brought it home to New Orleans where it’s been on the menu ever since.
Honestly, I’m not a guy who takes milk in their cocktail, but it is incredibly popular. We sell an enormous amount of them. So much so, that we lead the state in creme de menthe sales. I think we buy about 350 cases of creme de menthe a year.
BP: Why is New Orleans the birthplace of so many classic cocktails?
ML: So many cocktails originated here: the Grasshopper, the French 75, the Sazarac, the Vieux Carré. We did absinthe with a sugar cube before anyone. We’re so proud of our cocktails in New Orleans, that, in my opinion, the only city that rivals us is New York City. Long before the craft cocktail movement, Bartenders in New Orleans were already doing all of it.
BP: Can you share some of the history of Tujague’s? In 160 years, who has eaten here?
ML: We’ve had everyone from presidents to congressmen to celebrities. Monica Lewinsky had dinner here and my dad thought it was amazing. In my time, Justin Timberlake has hosted two events here, and Lizzo had her birthday party here this year, right before Jazzfest. We kept it under wraps, but she blasted it out on social media.
BP: Let’s talk about another kind of spirits — any paranormal activity at the restaurant?
ML: I never believed in ghosts, but at the old restaurant (823 Decatur Street), there was a hundred percent chance of a ghost in the building. I’d be in my office and had all of the cameras on and I would hear banging. I would call my handyman on the intercom and it wasn’t him. Then someone emailed me a picture of a spirit. and it was Julian Eltinge, who was a famous actor and cross-dresser. There was a picture of him at the restaurant, and I had taken the picture down and put it in the attic. I called (cookbook author and radio host) Poppy Tooker, and she told me I had better put the picture back up.
BP: During my recent dinner at Tujague’s it was difficult to decide on what to eat — what do you recommend?
ML: The first thing you must order is a Sazarac — it’s a proper introduction to New Orleans. Then, I might be biased, but we have the best seafood in the world here in New Orleans, so I would lean into that. Then, try a grasshopper. Or an Old Fashioned —or a fourth. There’s no judgment in New Orleans.