Tujague’s historic French Quarter restaurant reopens

Tujague’s Restaurant saw capacity crowds during lots of nights last spring, though the mood was not always festive around its dining room and bar.

The future of the city’s second-oldest restaurant was in doubt after succession issues with the family-run business stirred speculation that it could be converted into a T-shirt shop. Many people visited for what they assumed would be their final meal or cocktail, as if paying their last respects.

Beginning this week, however, visitors can instead toast to Tujague’s future, as the restaurant famous for its resolutely old-fashioned ways unveils more modern menus and refurbished dining rooms.

“I know I’ll get some criticism from people who didn’t want anything to change,” said Mark Latter, the restaurant’s new owner. “But we needed to do something to make sure Tujague’s would be here for the next generation. I wanted to do something new to bring in new people, but also make it still feel like Tujague’s, which is what a lot of people expect when they come here.”

The traditional, five-course table d’hôte menu remains in place, a format that harkens to the restaurant’s 19th-century roots. But now, for the first time in its history, there’s also an a la carte menu. It reads like a mix of a steakhouse and a contemporary Creole bistro, with seared tuna, hand-made gnocchi, veal chops and rack of lamb joining the restaurant’s famous brisket and shrimp remoulade.

In the bar, patrons will be able to order from a separate menu with filet mignon sliders and soft shell crab BLTs. Tujague’s will begin serving its new menus this Friday, and by mid-September, Latter says, the hours of service will expand to add daily lunch and weekend brunch.

Tujague’s closed briefly earlier this month for renovations, most of which were cosmetic, such as fresh paint and new carpets. The most significant overhaul was in the main dining room, a narrow space under a soaring ceiling where whitewashed walls and mirrors have replaced brown paneling. It’s a classic look that Latter acknowledges was inspired by the dining room at Galatoire’s Restaurant.

The changes come after a tumultuous few months for the historic restaurant, which dates to 1856. Steven Latter, the restaurant’s longtime owner and Mark Latter’s father, died in February. Steven’s brother, Stanford Latter, owns Tujague’s building, and by March word spread that he planned to sell the property to Mike Motwani, a New Orleans businessman who operates a string of T-shirt shops around the French Quarter. The news provoked an impassioned public response, including offers from other restaurant operators to partner with Tujague’s and a rush of bookings from those seeking a last supper under its roof.

Behind the scenes, however, Mark Latter was negotiating with his uncle for a chance to keep Tujague’s alive.

“What made the difference was I had faith in Mark to make the place as a success,” Stanford Latter said. “We changed our plans. I’d like to say it was the community response that did it, but the community won’t pay my bills.”

In May, Mark Latter purchased the restaurant from other family members, giving him full ownership of Tujague’s, and he signed a long-term lease with his uncle for the building. Latter hired a new chef, Richard Bickford, formerly of Commander’s Palace and SoBou, and set about designing a new menu and making renovations.

“I consider myself the new generation,” said Latter, who is 35. “We needed to make changes for a long time. I thought we should update the menu, but dad didn’t want to change anything. I told him we should do some renovations, but he thought that would be too much change. My father wore the same color Polo shirt and khaki pants everyday. He didn’t like change.”

The revamp has already gotten the seal of approval from some regulars who have been watching Latter’s changes closely.

“He made it new, but he didn’t change it. That’s a tough trick to pull off but he did it the right way,” said Louis Sahuc, a French Quarter photographer who has been visiting Tujague’s since he was a boy in the 1940s. “A T-shirt shop there would have been just terrible, but Mark did it right. There’s nothing wrong with improving quality.”