Monday, May 4, 2015

Napoleon House changes guard

Friday will be a momentous day in the history of the Napoleon House, as the French Quarter landmark is slated to officially change hands from the Impastato family that founded it generations ago to local restaurateur Ralph Brennan.
Don’t expect much public fanfare, however, or even a change of pace as the plate-sized muffulettas and hazy Pimm’s Cup cocktails continue to make the rounds of its famously evocative dining room and courtyard.
“Hopefully, no one will notice the difference,” Brennan said. “We really don’t want to disrupt anything.”
Since the planned sale of the Napoleon House was announced in late March, Brennan has maintained that he’ll bring a light touch to the historic Chartres Street property, with the goal of preserving the character that makes the restaurant and bar so idiosyncratic and distinctive, even by the high standards of the French Quarter. Once the sale is finalized on Friday, Brennan said, the Napoleon House will simply continue with business as usual.
Initially, there will be only a few new faces. Brennan tapped Chris Montero, formerly his chef and general manager at Cafe B, to run the Napoleon House, and he’ll be joined by a team of three new chefs and managers drawn from Brennan’s company.
Montero has spent much of April working at the Napoleon House, essentially shadowing proprietor Sal Impastato to learn the particularities of the operation. Even with the sale completed, Impastato, his wife, Vivian, and sisters Maria Impastato and Jane Lala will stay on for a few weeks to lend more continuity to the change.
“They’re wonderful people, and they have a great tradition, and we’re honored that they picked us to continue it,” Brennan said.
The Napoleon House property was built as a mansion for a New Orleans mayor, Nicholas Girod, in 1814, when the city was just emerging from its colonial era. The Impastatos first operated a grocery there in 1914, when the French Quarter was a bastion of Italian immigrants.
From there, they gradually developed it into a bar and later a restaurant. After a century of ownership, the family was looking for a buyer to take over and continue the business, and Impastato said a mutual friend and accountant connected him with Brennan.
While Impastato acknowledged that some of his staff and customers were apprehensive about the change in ownership, he said the slow approach Brennan has promised and Montero’s efforts to learn the operation have made a difference.
“They’re coming in with people who have worked together a long time, so I think that’s going to help,” Impastato said. “We’re proud of this place; we always wanted it to grow, and I think they can do that.”
Montero and Brennan said an obvious area for growth is in banquets and private events. While the ground-floor rooms and courtyard are the best-known features, they constitute only a fraction of the total property, which has two more floors, an attic and wings that surround the courtyard. Some of these areas are now configured as small apartments.
The Napoleon House has long held private functions in a second-floor ballroom, though on a limited schedule. Montero said there is much more potential for these types of events in the future. The menu and operating hours may be up for revision, too, but Montero said any such changes will be decided later.
The Napoleon House will be the eighth restaurant for Brennan’s company, including his family’s historic Brennan’s Restaurant a block and a half away on Royal Street, which he reopened with business partner Terry White in November.
While the Napoleon House is joining the fold, Brennan said it will remain a unique property.
“All of my restaurants are different; it’s not a cookie-cutter approach, and that’s what I like about it, and that will be the same here,” he said. “We’ll change some things; they have their systems, we have ours, but these are things that the guests will never notice.”
For his part, Impastato said change has long been a fraught topic at the Napoleon House, though by sticking to what they knew, his family built a business that still stands out.
“When I took over, they didn’t want me to touch anything, and that was 40 years ago. So we never changed; we never followed the trends. We just kept doing what we’re doing,” he said. “People come to New Orleans, and everything is new and gleaming these days, but we never touched anything here.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.

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