Backstory: No Waterloo for Napoleon House

A landmark restaurant in the French Quarter shows the spirit and struggles facing New Orleans after Katrina.

Conversation dips and swells to the soaring lilt of the "1812 Overture," as restaurant patrons chat amiably while waiting to be seated. French phrases swirl through clipped New York consonants and Louisiana drawls as flannel-shirted men and Chanel-suited women hunch over steaming bowls of gumbo.

This could be 1940s Paris or modern-day Manhattan. These could be paupers or princes. Time and truth have a way of getting lost here, weaving an ambiance that still enchants, even in a post-Katrina world.

Maria Impastato, who co-owns Napoleon House with her siblings, is steeped in reality. As owners of one of only 722 restaurants back up and running in New Orleans, they're struggling to deal with a crushing loss: Only two of the 32-member staff returned after the storm. The others have become part of Katrina's diaspora.

"They'd like to be here, and we'd like to have them back," Ms. Impastato says. "There's nowhere for them to live."

The Napoleon House provides a window into where New Orleans stands 16 months after hurricane Katrina. The restaurant industry, long central to the city's epicurean identity, is making strides in reopening its bouillabaisse of coffeehouses and cafes. But the city is far from the food capital it once was. Industry officials say barely a third of the area's 1,880 pre-Katrina restaurants have reopened. Sales are expected to be down at least $300 million this year.

The hardship has been particularly acute in the French Quarter, due to its proximity to the water. Many restaurants suffered heavy damage and lost a disproportionate number of employees. Affordable housing near the Quarter has been slow to return. Tom Weatherly, a vice president of the Louisiana Restaurant Association, estimates that 54,000 workers were directly involved in the Greater New Orleans restaurant industry before Katrina. Only 39,000 of those people have come back.

Chains like Burger King offered a $6,000 signing bonus after the storm. Others raised wages. Still, "help wanted" signs abound in a city in which an estimated 50,000 homes were lost, and nearly half the residents have yet to return.

For well-known restaurants like Napoleon House, the problem isn't customers as much as staffing. To cope, the restaurant has limited its menu and scaled back its hours, reducing revenue by 50 percent.

Impastato and her brother, Sal, pull double shifts Fridays through Wednesdays, arriving at 9 a.m. and often not leaving until 2 a.m. the next day. They share duties with Sal's wife, Vivian; their sister, Janie Lala; and her husband, Leonard. Four others round out the crew.

The strain is evident. It's lunchtime here, and Impastato is a one-woman dynamo, pushing through the dense crowd, arms laden with the same thick, crusty muffulettas her Uncle Joe made famous in 1920. She stops to tally a check, then hurries back to the kitchen to take another set of plates from Sal. Across the room, a young waiter narrowly avoids a collision with bartender Greg Cowman, who's squatting in a walkway, taking an order. This is a well-choreographed dance, just another day in the harsh reality of the new Big Easy.

***

Erected in 1814 by Mayor Nicolas Girod, this French Quarter landmark has seduced locals and tourists for almost two centuries with a blend of romance and intrigue. According to local legend, the ornate edifice, outfitted with Carerra marble and mahogany, was intended to serve as a refuge for exiled emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, who was to be spirited away by a band of sympathizers. There's only one problem: Napoleon died in 1821 before he could ever step foot in the three-story structure.

In 1920, a brash young Italian named Joe Impastato bought the property and began a legacy. What started out as a grocery store quickly became known as the place for good food and good times. The atmosphere was cemented when he began playing classical music and operas on his Victrola.

Impastato says her father, Peter, was determined to continue in that vein when he took over after World War II. Let Bourbon Street have its burlesque montage. There would be none of that at Napoleon House. "It wasn't a rowdy place," she says. "Daddy would have turntables playing and Christian pamphlets like you'd see in church. He was like a missionary."

Deeply religious, Mr. Impastato became known for his generosity. He brought beggars in for hot bowls of jambalaya. He offered the upper chambers, once reserved for royalty, to homeless people. Everyone was equal in Peter Impastato's world.

Still, it was a bar, and he kept his five children shielded. It wasn't until after he died in 1971 and they took over the business that they fully understood the life of the man they called "Daddy" and his legend.

"He lived his faith, and we were very aware of that," Impastato says. "But as young children, we were never down there. We didn't realize what Daddy went through."

It hasn't been easy keeping Napoleon House running. In the dark days following the storm, amid the stench of rotten food and sounds of blowflies, Impastato says they worked night and day, holding the memories close to their hearts. There was never any doubt they would reopen. The bigger question was – and is – how long will it take for things to return to normal.

***

Sherry Lopez, a longtime customer, sees reasons for optimism. Though she misses the full menu, she says it's a relief to see her favorite landmark open again. As a young couple, she and her husband celebrated many happy occasions here. When they parted amicably 20 years later, they sat at their favorite table in the back corner one more time and planned their divorce.

"People from all walks of life come through here," Ms. Lopez says as a horse-drawn carriage passes outside. "People sit at the table and play chess and get into intellectual arguments."

For many, the appeal of Napoleon House lies in its unflappable sameness. Ric Rolston says it's always his first stop when friends from out of town visit, partly for the food, but mostly for the atmosphere. "It's an institution," he says, gazing at the peeling plaster walls and eclectic mixture of Napoleon-themed paintings and busts. "There's nothing more 'French Quarter' than Napoleon House. It's elegant decay."

Waiter Denny Moore agrees. An avid customer before Katrina, he was thrilled to join the staff – a coveted position that used to have a waiting list. Mr. Moore began as a busboy last year and was recently promoted. He admits the long hours and lack of staff can get stressful, but he feels privileged to work here. "It's a special place, owned by very special people," he says, sipping a frothy mug of hot chocolate in the shade of a back patio. "They've embraced me like family. I looked for that all my life and never seemed to find it until I came here."

For the Impastatos, this is home. As Maria Impastato walks through the rooms where her father once walked, she's besieged by memories. She and her siblings spent long summer afternoons chasing one another up and down the spiral staircase. On pretty days, they'd take picnic baskets piled high with sandwiches to Jackson Square for al fresco feasts and skip up the steps of St. Louis Cathedral.

Even then, there was nowhere else they'd rather be. "We're here and we're doing our best," she says. "We'd like to come back to what we had before, but for now we just keep going."

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