They hold the latest edition of Fodor’s. Or Lonely Planet. Or Off the Beaten Path New Orleans. The latest in a long line of seekers confined to the well-worn tourists paths of the city, whose white legs slow from a saunter to a shuffle, whose eyes look up from a page of a guide book to the sign in the shape of the bicorne, the two-cornered hat favored by Napoleon Bonaparte. Though the sign leaves no question, really, they often give a spin of the head to be sure that they are, in fact, on Chartres Street, double-check the book for the address, and close it, leaving an index finger inserted to mark the spot. Because once they step inside Napoleon House, it may in fact not be what they are looking for, and the book will need to be reopened, another establishment selected.
But they are not disappointed. Has anyone—tourist or local—ever been disappointed by Napoleon House? Its appeal is a certain type of—I’m going to dare say it—authenticity. That bona fide nature has nothing to do with cohesiveness. The two-hundred-year-old French colonial townhouse, turned grocery then café and bar, is not decked out in period decor and doesn’t serve French cuisine. It’s been allowed to live and breathe, to accept and absorb waves of change. You can be your modern self here, while basking in the comfort of something so historic it feels permanent. Pull out your iPhone while you eat a quick lunch, or sit pretentiously with Moleskine and fountain pen for hours as the sun moves across the tile floor. It all fits.
Approaching the host stand two paces in from the door, a woman with her guide book at her side turns to her husband and raises her eyebrows. He nods with “Good job, honey” confirmation. Her shoulders shrug toward her ears. Yes, this kind of special feeling is what they were after. Yes, this particular golden light shining on this warm, worn interior. Yes, they like the old carved wood bar, but they want to sit at one of the wood tables, with the wood chairs, under the tall walls with chipped and curled paint, under the wood planks of the ceiling and the exposed pipes.
Following the waiter in his white shirtsleeves and loose black pants, they scan the bric-a-brac of hangings: paintings or posters of Napoleon, proudly framed images and news clippings about Napoleon House. Yes, he is leading them to the back, to the arched nook full of scrawled graffiti. They settle in with menus, the wife saying, “Pimm’s Cups, that’s what we’re supposed to drink. And the muffalettas. It says those are good.” Lenny, the white-haired man behind the bar, mixes the herbal British liquor with lemonade, soda, and a cucumber garnish. A thick round of bread filled with cold cuts and olive salad arrives to the table.
The guy who built this house might give a “sacre bleu!” in his grave that an English drink and an Italian sandwich have become its hallmarks. Nicolas Girod took office in 1812 as the fifth mayor of New Orleans, and while Louisiana was officially U.S. territory at the time, Girod was fiercely French. He pledged allegiance to Napoleon, even as the French emperor’s doomed exploits in Russia dethroned him. Girod was mayor during the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, and so greeted General Andrew Jackson as he arrived to fight the British on the Chalmette battlefield (that’s one figure we can say darkened the café’s doors). It’s said that Girod’s support was more about hating the British than loving America, though. The Brits had sent Girod’s beloved Napoloen into exile, first to the Mediterranean island of Elba, and then to the furthest corner they could find—St. Helena, an uninhabited volcanic island in the Atlantic between Africa and South America, a common stopover for merchant ships. Girod’s mercantile background gave him resources for a grand scheme: to bring Napoleon to New Orleans and ensconce him at the Chartres and St. Louis residence. He apparently went public with this plan in 1821, commissioning the ship Seraphine for the secret voyage and retaining one of pirate Jean Lafitte’s men, Dominique You, for the wild plot.
But Napoleon died that year, before they set sail.
So Napoleon House, now one of the French Quarter’s most loved establishments, is named for something that maybe almost happened. But didn’t.
Salvatore Impastato sits at a table in the second room of the café, darker than the front, with a portal to the blue afternoon shade of the courtyard. He is mild-mannered with glasses, a thin gold chain, and signet ring; Napoleon House has been in his Sicilian family for a century as a business.
“Yeah I watch them read the history, the tourists. We set them straight if they ask if Napoleon lived here. We say, no, no. But you know they sit with their lists, anyway, and check us off. You know, OK, did that.”
Sal doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who would tick things off a list while on vacation. Or take many vacations, for that matter. Some people are not seeking, not hunting for specialness. They take what comes. A portrait of Pietro, master of Napoleon House from 1936 to 1971, hangs prominently. It’s Peter, Sal’s dad. He didn’t want his son to take over the business. “Dad wanted me to be a priest,” Sal tells me, “even sent me to some kind of religious summer camp for it.” After a stint in the air force, Sal was home in New Orleans and his father got sick. He took on the business with some help from siblings in 1971, the year after the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
It must be funny to have people fetishize what, for Sal, is his normal life. People like me get trapped by desire for some Big Story, some sweeping narrative to match the layers of history in the café. The feeling, the peeling, the . . . “The patina?” Sal helps me find the word. I get a glimmer in my eye at the details he shares, making them larger than life, spinning an epic from his plainly delivered anecdotes.
Sal is at Napoleon House most days. “This one place is like having two places,” he says, showing me the upstairs rooms available for private events. “My aunt and uncle, this was their bedroom back here for, I dunno, fifty years,” he says. The family grew weary of the hubbub of the Quarter, as it grew more tourist-oriented than residential. Napoleon House is not even open Mardi Gras Day, preferring to avoid the extreme crowds rather than force their one bartender to serve them. The French Quarter and its old buildings were not made for the ever-growing influx. When a cruise ships pulls into port, Sal says, the massive boat connects to the city’s water system. The old neighborhood plumbing suffers. “You don’t need to look to the river to know the Carnival boat is docked. The water pressure drops, the toilets back up.”
Looking down from the balcony, a brass band plays and a small crowd follows. They’re having a great time, some wearing costumes and waving handkerchiefs in the air as they sway to the music. But there’s a certain stiffness that gives them away as tourists, conventioners, out-of-town wedding guests. They are trying to liberate themselves through dance and music, but they are not quite free. They’ve been instructed and they’re playing along, but their nervous glances seek approval and fear embarrassment.
It was around the 1984 World’s Fair, Sal guesses, that Napoleon House ramped up as a visitor destination. Before then it was mostly locals, coming in for lunch, coming in to drink after work, though he insists it’s never been a rowdy place. In the graffiti-covered nook at the back, he shows me a plastic fixture, where a telephone used to hang. One lawyer he knew would sit there for hours, making and taking calls. A painting of Napoleon House hanging nearby was pulled out of Jax Brewery, he tells me. It includes a detail Sal wants me to see: The Napoleonic crest of “N” on canvas curtains, rolled down each afternoon to keep the sun out. Construction of the hotel across the street eliminated the need for those shades.
Despite its inclusion on every “must do” list, the café has remained a favorite for locals. “Oh, I love Napoleon House!” is what pretty much any resident will say if you ask them to meet there. Because locals fall under its spell, too. As the afternoon wanes, anyone is liable to cast a spell of romance in the placid dining rooms and courtyard. That coat rack in the corner, the items hanging from it. Who left that umbrella? How many decades since it’s been touched? Then a waiter coming on to his shift nabs his black half-apron from one of the hooks. Oh right, it’s simply where the staff keeps their stuff. That is not William Faulkner’s umbrella.
Is it the spell of Nicolas Girod and his crazy scheme to spring Napoleon from a remote volcanic island with the help of a pirate captain? Maybe he imbued the place with a determined restlessness, the energy that a fallen French emperor was meant to dwell here—even if he never did.
A woman I recognize sits at a corner table with a man. She has big glasses and a sweep of highlighted hair. She is a well-known writer. Sal gives me his tour, and upon return she is still there, seated. Lenny the white-haired bartender now sits across from her, with the drawer from his register, counting the till. It’s the kind of intimate moment only an interloper would find meaningful and fascinating. Sal, I think, catches me staring. “You must hear from people all the time who’ve been inspired by this place?” I make another stab at drama, “Who’ve left interesting things written on napkins, or written songs here?”
Sal opens a dusty cabinet, roots through some old receipts and pamphlets stacked inside. He comes to a drawing, not a great one, of some tables and chairs. He squints at it, flips it over. I’m sure he’s about to utter a name I’ve seen on book jackets or see on art museum walls.
“No, that’s not it.” He puts it back with the scraps. “There’s something interesting here, but I can’t find it.”