If Miss Brenda is in the kitchen, you can tell by the chicken bonne femme. It’s not the most famous Tujague’s dish — that would be the boiled brisket, likely followed by the shrimp remoulade — but it’s certainly the unsung hero at this 160-year-old New Orleans institution. The crisp skin. The juicy meat stacked high and smothered in scallop-sliced potatoes and loads of garlicky persillade. If chef Brenda Gooden — known to longtime regulars as "Miss Brenda" —prepares it, it’s served on a bed of purple cabbage with ripe grape tomatoes as a decorative garnish. It arrives at the table with the same head-turning allure of the ever-footballish Baked Alaska.
Chicken bonne femme was originally created by the restaurant’s third madam, Madame Clemence Castet — and if that old-timey honorific isn’t obvious enough, it’s safe to say this building’s kitchen has actually seen more madames than a Storyville brothel.
This was back in the days when butchers would simply toss carcasses into the river and call it a day: Grub in the time of cholera.
Tujague’s is the third oldest continuously-operating restaurant in America. It’s pronounced "two jacks," which sounds like what many a politician has rolled at poker dice in the legendary stand-up bar downstairs — the oldest in the country. Presidents including Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower all visited in their day. The restaurant itself is older than 20 U.S. states, and it’s said to house a few ghosts.
So how has Tujague’s, which is not truly a fine-dining destination and not so much a cocktail lounge, stayed in business for so long? Some of its greatest hits remain thanks to Miss Brenda, who has been cooking at Tujague’s for some 43 years, and because of fourth-generation owner Mark Latter, who took over in 2013. But essentially, it’s because multiple generations of savvy owners have managed to steer the landmark through numerous setbacks and evolve in the process, solidifying its position among New Orleans’s — and the country’s — most important restaurants.
First, there was the namesake, Guillaume Tujague, a French transplant who came iin 1852 to work as a butcher in the French Market. Four years later he, along with his wife Marie Abadie Tujague, opened the doors to their eponymous eatery. This was back in the days when butchers would simply toss carcasses into the river and call it a day: Grub in the time of cholera.
But the city’s dining scene was already beginning to boom. By the time New Orleans hosted the 1884 World’s Fair, Antoine’s was highly-regarded nationally. But nearby restaurant Madame Begue’s was the real hot ticket — it was arguably the first restaurant in America to offer brunch, a five-course boozy affair called butcher’s breakfast, served at 11 a.m. everyday. It was the only meal served at Begue’s, and it was a hit, especially among tourists who arrived by train. Begue’s fame likely prompted Tujague’s to start copycat marketing, as the restaurant’s historian and author of Tujague’s Cookbook Poppy Tooker calls it, offering a butcher’s breakfast in order to attract clientele as well. "Madame Begue is only serving 30 people no matter what," she says. "Undoubtedly, it was a reaction to the fact that she was turning away people all the time."
But Tujague’s brunch didn’t really become its trademark. That belonged to the table d’hote menu — a casual and filling prix-fixe that was a butcher’s favorite thanks to the hearty boiled brisket with horseradish sauce that would always be offered — which has long held court at the restaurant, along with its bar.
When Guillaume Tujague’s sister sold the restaurant after his death (depending on the account, the sale happened in 1914 or 1916), it actually began to eclipse longtime rival Madame Begue’s, which was onto its second madame and second, albeit doomed location that shuttered by 1918. Tujague’s may have very well put the nail in the coffin when it moved into Begue’s original location, where it still remains today. One of the second-generation owners, Jean-Dominic Castet, had even worked at Madame Begue’s — it had been his only job since moving with his wife from France to New Orleans in 1908. He and partner Philibert (or Philip) Guichet, a young man with drive from Raceland, Louisiana, worked the bar. But it was Castet’s wife, Clemence Castet, who primarily ran the kitchen and restaurant, resurrecting some of Madame Begue’s classics and adding her own spin to the table d’hote over time.
During the Castets’ tenure, the bar enjoyed the height of its popularity. It reportedly opened as early as 6 a.m. daily for the butchers. Guichet invented both the Grasshopper and the Whiskey Punch here, but it wasn’t a pristine place. The bar had a rotted wood floor. The drainage was bad; the men likely worse. There was gambling. "I’ve heard unbelievable stories," Tooker says. "It was just nasty. It was really rough stuff."
There was a table, somewhere in the back of the bar, where judges and lawyers from the federal courthouse would convene for lunch and start drinking. By the time prohibition rolled around, the restaurant appeared to comply — with only bottles of near beer lining the back bar — but the servers were actually keeping booze in their aprons, sneaking their guests a taste. In 1931, The Times-Picayune reported that Guichet had been "seized by a raider after serving absinthe."
Women used a separate entrance, and it’s likely that Madame Castet rarely stepped foot in the bar. Her realm was in the kitchen, creating new dishes, like her famous chicken, for boozed-up politicians and teetotaling families to eat in the benign dining room. When her husband died in the late 1950s, the Guichet family took over the entire operation, but Clemence Castet would still come to work and operate the restaurant's hand-crank cash register until her death in 1965. But it was evident that the Guichets didn’t really want to operate the restaurant side. The upstairs — where Madame Begue always served her 30-seat brunch — remained closed to the public. In the budding era of kitchen shortcuts, the food started to go downhill. The Guichets decided to sell.
Enter Steven Latter. In 1983, Latter was an executive purchaser for a men’s accessory company, a glorified tie salesman with no previous restaurant experience. But one day, his brother Stanford called and asked him out to dinner: He was planning on purchasing the Tujague’s building and was considering leasing it out to a fast-food franchise.
The meal was awful — "ketchup sauce over canned baby shrimp," as one of his descendants puts it now — but Latter was convinced that he could turn it around if his family took over. So they did. Stanford would own the building. Steven would run the restaurant. "I honestly think he got in here and was so seduced by the mystique of it," Tooker says.
"The restaurant was his entire life. But he didn’t care about the food. He enjoyed his regulars."
Mark Latter, Steven's son, grew up in the restaurant, walking the long brass railing that spans the length of the bar like a plank. He’d play dice, go to Cafe du Monde, eat beignets, hit up the French Market. He’d enjoy off-menu items too, specialties that Brenda Gooden — who was first brought on by Philip Guichet in 1970 — made for him.
Under Latter’s guidance, the food improved — Gooden also resurrected Madame Castet’s lost dishes, which she’d memorized over the years in the kitchen — but Tujague’s remained largely a bar hangout for politicians and neighborhood regulars. They came to drink every day with Phillip Guichet’s grandson Noonie, who stayed on at the bar after the restaurant was sold, and with Steven Latter himself, a beloved curmudgeon. Latter presided over the restaurant and bar from a Crown Royal-branded throne. He sat in the chair, wearing khakis and a blue shirt, from 4 p.m. to close every day. He wasn’t a big drinker, but he did collect small airplane bottles of booze, which were illegal in Louisiana at the time, and can still be found shrouded in glass cases in the restaurant’s dining rooms today. Thousands of them.
"The restaurant was his entire life," Mark Latter says of his father. "But he didn’t care about the food. He enjoyed his regulars." He named private dining rooms in their honor. He bet with them on college football games. He was stubborn, too, refusing to try new restaurants and trends. The last menu update Steven Latter made was in the late 1980s, during the Paul Prudhomme-induced Cajun frenzy of yore, and changes to the table d’hote — a sudden abundance of pasta salads and blackened fish — were undertaken only at the vehement urging of concerned family members.
By the time he was a young man, Mark Latter was doing dishes and working most positions in the restaurant. He spent a year in the kitchen. Steven wanted his son to be able to run any position in the restaurant, even though he himself could not.
Mark went to work for Ralph Brennan at Red Fish Grill in the 1990s, a time when that restaurant was doing upwards of 800 covers a night. When he returned to Tujague’s, he had improvements in mind that his father didn’t agree with: Ways they could save overhead. Ways they could update the menu. Ways they could preserve tradition but also enhance it. "I went and bought cookbooks. I started looking at Emeril. I made crawfish risotto, and the staff didn’t even know what risotto was."
Mark painstakingly redesigned the entire menu and showed it to his father. Steven didn’t even read over the new dishes, but saw only the menu’s new design and sniped, "Why are these lines here?" There was a bit of tension between the two, needless to say.
For several years now, Mark Latter has been taking the same critique from old timers: "Your father would never do it this way."
In February 2013, Steven Latter died unexpectedly, and a few weeks later, Mark found out that his uncle wanted to sell the building to businessman Mike Motwani, known for his touristy t-shirt shop empire that sells the I got bourbon faced on shit street numbers around the Quarter. It was rumored that Motwani would sell fried chicken at the location; that the building would sell for over $5 million. While Latter doesn’t disclose the amount Motwani was willing to spend on the property, it’s enough to make him start rubbing his forehead in anguish even today.
Panic ensued. Over 40,000 people took to social media to rant and mourn the impending loss. New Orleanians flocked to the restaurant to eat. Famed New Orleans restaurateurs jumped in: Ralph Brennan, Dickie Brennan, John Besh. But nobody bit at the building’s asking price. The New York Times even caught wind of the impending shutter, but by then Stanford Latter reportedly had a change of heart. Mark convinced him to let Tujague’s remain open under his ownership, and people continued to pour in.
But for several years now, Mark Latter has been taking the same critique from old timers: "Your father would never do it this way." He has learned to smile and say Well, thank you for joining us tonight. Some long time regulars at the bar still won’t even acknowledge him.
What’s all the fuss? After centuries serving only a five-course table d’hote menu, he added a la carte menu items, lunch service, and small plates at the bar — sliders, even. He renovated the main dining room, which had been home to more wood paneling than a 1970s pot den. He revamped the upstairs, sprucing up the private dining areas his father had founded in honor of his Mardi Gras’ pirate krewe, Krewe d’Etat.
Some front-of-house staff quit because they just couldn’t take certain changes — the addition of gnocchi to the menu, the idea that someone might actually want to know the sourcing of their chicken. Latter understands what the restaurant had been under his father’s tenure — a veritable museum of New Orleans’ culinary world and a gathering spot for longtime regulars — and he hopes to improve upon it. There are traditions that he can’t and won’t change. Madame Begue’s and Tujague’s photos still line the walls. The restaurant remains a major destination for New Orleanians on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The coffee has always been served in tempered shot glasses. The shrimp remoulade and brisket are always options on the table d’hote.
While a longtime regular named Sonny still comes in and gets a few glasses of wine at age 92, the crowd has become much younger and more diverse these days: bachelor and bachelorette parties anyway. Latter is banking on keeping Tujague’s open, and in order to do that, he sees the importance of bringing the restaurant up to speed with the modern hospitality industry, as much as he can. He’s hosted drag queen brunches and big-name guest chefs, including John Besh and Stephen Stryjewski. A new executive chef Guy D. Sockrider brings a modern Creole approach to the a la carte menu, with an eye for seasonality. Shrimp will be served with an absinthe cream sauce, but nobody will be getting arrested for it.
At Tujague’s, drainage is still bad. Pipes burst. $7,000 water bills must be paid to the city. There is a man named Dr. Pipe on call most of the time. There is the ever-present feeling that several ghosts reside in the space, known to bang pots and pans in the upstairs service kitchen or slam bathroom doors shut in the middle of the night. Some believe the original Madame Begue may haunt the second floor, where her kitchen and dining room were. On the first floor, a ghost — the famous early 20th century actor Julian Eltinge — reportedly showed up in the background of a couple’s selfie. Not many restaurants can lay claim to a ghost that photo-bombs the customers.
Today, Latter has his own son who walks the infamous brass rail in the bar. He tries not to work as much as his father did, and isn’t sure he’d want his own boy to take over the business. "It’s kind of brutal," he admits. "But it would be cool to say grandpa did it this way, and I did it this way." If he’s so inclined, the Crown Royal throne awaits him.
Gwendolyn Knapp is editor of Eater New Orleans. Josh Brasted is a freelance photographer based in New Orleans.
Editor: Erin DeJesus