Garden District: 2100 St. Charles Avenue
The Carol is an upscale condominium tower whose occupants have tended toward the well-to-do, prominent side of the spectrum. As such, the building's managers wanted to have an excellent restaurant on the ground floor. The first two attempts—The Emerald Door and Lotar's—both had lofty goals, but never attracted enough business from the outside world to keep them viable.
The third restaurant was the charm. The Versailles was created by Chef Gunter Preuss, a classically trained chef in the European tradition. He had made a local reputation as executive chef at the Roosevelt Hotel in the mid-1960s. A major renovation of the hotel gave birth to the Sazerac restaurant—the new grand gourmet room, built next to the long-running Sazerac Bar. Its menu and style were the creation of Gunter Preuss.
Chef Gunter was born in Berlin in the 1930s. He was a boy in World War II. He entered the European hotel apprentice system and its rigorous training of chefs. After moving from one deluxe hotel to another he and his wife Evelyn (also a Berliner) came to America and ultimately to New Orleans.
The 1960s and 1970s were a good time to be a European chef in New Orleans. For one thing, there were very few other chefs in town. Most restaurants—even the big ones—didn't have chefs, but brigades of cooks. The few real chefs were almost all European, articulate, and well-presented. They got on television a lot more than the home-grown guys.
People in The Carol and elsewhere Uptown took a liking to the Versailles. The room was modern, with low lighting, big windows giving onto the passing streetcars, and a comfortable bar (the Sun King Lounge, to continue the Louis XIV theme). The food was beautiful and delicious. Chef Gunter specialized in a few classic dishes not often served elsewhere, notably bouillabaisse. "With real saffron," the world's most expensive food ingredient," the chef liked to point out.
Things were going well enough that Gunter decided to open for lunch. He bought colorful plastic tablecloths to give a casual air to the place at midday. One day his wife—who as a mother of two boys had kept her nose out of the restaurant's operation—happened to pass the restaurant at noon. She saw the red and green and yellow tablecloths. "What is that?" she thought, and pulled into the Versailles' driveway. "Gunter!" she called as soon as she got a closer look. She started pulling the tablecloths off. "You can't have this in a fine restaurant."
That was the beginning of Evelyn's involvement in the restaurant. Always beautifully dressed and groomed, she became as much a part of the place as her husband had been.
The Versailles was a study in consistency for a decade. Then, in 1983, Gunter and his fellow German restaurateur George Huber partnered to buy Broussard's from the Marcello family. Gunter ran both restaurants for a time, and a few years later bought out Huber.
In the meantime, the shift in dining vogues Uptown to the bistro style softened business at the Versailles. The Preusses sold the place and moved their well-polished act to Broussard's—sort of. The day of the grand Continental restaurant, with elaborate plate presentations and formal service, was clearly ending. Instead of turning Broussard's into Versailles II, they allowed it to become more Creole, casual, and easygoing. They are still at that task.
This is one of 122 reviews of fondly-remembered but extinct restaurants from Lost Restaurants Of New Orleans, just published by Pelican. It's available in bookstores all around town, and full of photos, graphics, menus, and memorabilia.
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