Future of historic New Orleans restaurant unclear after death

Advocate file photo -- The bar at Tujague's is a favorite gather spot year-round, including during Mardi Gras.
Advocate file photo -- The bar at Tujague's is a favorite gather spot year-round, including during Mardi Gras.

Tujague’s Restaurant at 823 Decatur St. has been serving up food to New Orleanians in one incarnation or another for 157 years, but now faithful customers are worried the beautifully worn bar, narrow hallways and creaking stairs will become another T-shirt shop.

The building, which encompasses a bar, dining room, private dining areas and small apartment, has been in continuous use since its start as Begue’s, which an October 1906 New York Times article said, “served one meal, between breakfast and lunch, which became popular across America as ‘brunch.’ ”

Tujague’s, then 54 years old, moved into the Begue’s building in 1914. The Buichet and Castet families owned Tujague’s until brothers Steven and Stanford Latter bought the building in 1982. Steven ran the restaurant while Stanford held the title to the building.

The contemporary Tujague’s squeezes poker machines, televisions and sports memorabilia next to one-story mirrors imported from France. The jewel is the antique bar, which is beloved by locals for delicious red beans on Mondays. Customers wear shorts and three-piece suits. Regulars sip beer next to tourists having their first Sazerac.

This was the work of Steven E. Latter, who on any night easily could have been mistaken for one of the regulars. Funny, welcoming and unpretentious, he never acted like he was running the second-oldest restaurant in New Orleans.

Friends and customers were devastated when the 64-year-old died in his sleep Feb. 18. Hundreds showed up at his memorial.

His death left his brother Stanford Latter with the title of the Tujague’s building and Mark Latter, Steven Latter’s son, running the business with no contingency plan in place.

Stanford Latter said in a Times-Picayune obituary that at first he wanted to rent the Decatur Street building out to the highest bidder, but his brother prevailed in saving the restaurant, giving his life to Tujague’s.

The question that has emerged for Mark Latter and Tujague’s customers is whether Stanford Latter will continue that legacy or try now, as he originally planned in 1982, to maximize the profit potential for the French Quarter property.

Reached at home March 24, Stanford Latter would not confirm or deny plans for the future of Tujague’s.

Stanford Latter is friends and business partners with Kishore “Mike’’ Motwani, an owner of commercial real estate in the French Quarter.

In the early 2000s, Stanford Latter had a real estate office at 442 Canal St., one of Motwani’s buildings. Tourist-friendly merchandise was stored there and regularly distributed via shopping cart to Motwani’s gift shops.

Stanford Latter’s friendship with Motwani has led many to speculate that Tujague’s will soon go the way of Kaldi’s Coffee House, Progress Grocery, Cafe Sbisa and other beloved lower Decatur businesses that collapsed under the pressure of the tourist gift economy.

A graphic that is now circulating the Web urges, “Tujague’s Not T-Shirts.”

Motwani’s T-shirt shops and daiquiri stands — uses that drive preservationists crazy — dot the French Quarter and CBD.

Motwani did not return calls for comment.

Mark Latter, who worked at Tujague’s beside his father for years, has Steve Latter’s friendly manner and is eager to talk about anything else but the question surrounding Tujague’s future — politely refusing to answer those questions.

He points out the memorabilia that covers the walls and his father’s favorite chair that sits in the bar — a throne embroidered with the Crown Royal logo that is now off-limits to customers and sports a photo of his dad.

“All this stuff,” Mark Latter says, waving his hand around the restaurant, “was his.”

He will not comment on Stanford Latter.

Yet a campaign to rally support for Tujague’s is decidedly under way.

On Tujague’s official Facebook timeline, the “Tujague’s Not T-Shirts!” graphic appears.

There’s also this message from Tujague’s management: “... the local community has asked us how they can help based on recent news articles about the uncertain future and possible sale of the building.

“We can only ask that our patrons dine with us during these trying times,” it said.