RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: A jewel of a motel in New Orleans

By Rheta Grimsley Johnson

NEW ORLEANS – There are advantages to hanging out with people younger than you, and most of those have to do with music. It’s easy to get hidebound musically if all you ever listen to are your own high-school prom songs. Forgive me, Joe Cocker.
Then there are the disadvantages.
A few of my good friends in this city are younger, so much so that they know the popular watering holes, which inevitably are noisy and full so that sitting down is rarely an option. The younger the crowd, the more prevalent the chrome and mirrors, the better for fit folk to admire themselves.
I don’t mind spending a few minutes at the happening “wine bars” – which is what they always are – but what bothers me is the lack of regional distinctiveness. You could be in Atlanta, heaven forbid, or Dallas, or anywhere else on earth. It’s almost as if the point is for the establishment to look like an anonymous location for a Hugh Jackman movie set. And the “innovative” drinks arrive with what looks like glass clippings sprinkled on top.
Not so the little bar at Le Richelieu Motor Hotel on Chartres Street in the French Quarter. I finally have found a place that looks cozy and elegant and like it belongs here.
You cross the small hotel lobby’s black and white Alice in Wonderland floor and head for the soothing dark coolness of the Terrace Lounge. On the walls are photographs of celebrity guests, everyone from Lillian Hellman to Tiny Tim. There is, in fact, a hotel suite named for Paul McCartney, who stayed here a couple of months while recording an album.
What strikes you most is the quiet. It’s a place to meet a friend and have, imagine this, a regular, back-and-forth conversation. “You will never be found here, if you don’t want to be,” one reviewer said.
I remember once complaining about the terrible noise in a Savannah, Ga., restaurant. The owner did not apologize, only patiently explained to me, as if to a child, that his younger patrons like lively noise. I’ve never been back.
The day after my brief New Orleans visit, I was eating at my favorite non-seafood place on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, El Mexicano in Gulfport. And, munching on chips and salsa, I thought about the recent discovery in the Quarter.
Now what, you might ask, does the tony Richelieu have in common with a Mexican restaurant near the beach?
It’s located in an old pink building a seagull’s hop from the Mississippi Sound. And I like it for basically the same reasons I like the Richelieu. It is a small, nonchain, quiet place that you feel the world has not yet beaten a path to, though it’s been here nearly four decades, long before there was a Mexican restaurant at every traffic light.
Best of all is the atmosphere. The friendly server Tony’s voice is full of respect and concern.
“You might want me to change the sauce on that dish unless you like spicy,” he says. “It’s really hot.”
Tony acts like he is the owner and actually cares if the business dies or flies. He is, and he does.
RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON is a syndicated columnist who lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852. To find out more about Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.

Click video to hear audio