In 1920, Joseph Impastato paid $14,000 for 500 Chartres St., a building constructed in 1814 as a home for New Orleans Mayor Nicholas Girod. It was, he would later say, the smartest decision he ever made. Six years before, Impastato had opened a grocery at that address. That grocery became a bar. And that bar became a fixture of New Orleans called the Napoleon House.
On April 30, the Impastato family will sell the business and building to New Orleans restaurateur Ralph Brennan — a move that will end more than 100 years of ownership for the Impastato family.
Joseph, who emigrated from the Sicilian town of Cinisi in 1900, ran the Napoleon House until he retired in 1943 at age 58.
“I made what I got,” he told the Times-Picayune in 1981. “I didn’t need to work anymore.”
But he stayed at the Napoleon House — living in an upstairs apartment, holding court at a table on the patio — until he died in 1985, a few months after he turned 100.
A timeline of the Napoleon House, from 1814 to 2015.
For a brief time, Joseph leased the Napoleon House until Peter, his younger brother by 26 years, could return from his service in World War II and take over.
Why the Pimm’s Cup?
A devout man, Peter would toss a tablecloth over ladies whose dresses he deemed were cut too low. He left religious tracts on the tables outside the restroom. And he made the Pimm’s Cup, a British import with a low alcohol content, the house drink.
The Pimm’s Cup cocktail at the Napoleon House, New Orleans
Sample the Pimm’s Cup, arguably New Orleans most British cocktail at the Napoleon House, arguably New Orleans most French bar.
“He didn’t like to see people get drunk,” said Sal Impastato, Peter’s son, “so he pushed that drink.”
Peter, though, loved horses and boxing. At the Napoleon House back then, there were plenty of people ready to discuss both subjects.
“At the time it wasn’t a bustling place,” Sal said. “It was a small group of people. Lots of locals. They all knew my dad.”
When Peter died in 1971, at the age of 60, it was Sal’s turn to run the Napoleon House.
“When I took over,” said Sal, now 66, “I didn’t know I’d be here this long running the business.”
In the early 1970s, the Napoleon House was just a bar. A few years after Sal arrived, he added food.
Sal Impastato of the Napoleon House
Sal Impastato of the Napoleon House on March 28, 2015. (Photo by Dinah Rogers, NOLA.com / The Times-Picayune)
One of his employees was the son of Biaggio Montalbano, who had run a deli on St. Philip Street that made muffulettas, which the Montalbanos called the Roma sandwich and sold by the pound. Sal got Montalbano’s olive salad recipe and started making muffulettas at Napoleon House.
“We came in with the unheard of heated muffuletta,” he said. “That made a stir.”
How has the Napoleon House survived for more than a century?
“I don’t want to say it was my negligence,” Sal said, “but we never changed it. I could see that people loved it the way it was.”
The Pimm’s Cup is still the bar’s signature drink. The muffulettas, to the ongoing consternation of some locals, continue to be served warm. Opera and classical music provide the soundtrack. And the parchment-colored walls are hung with paintings, portraits and photographs of Joseph, Peter, former waiters, the Emperor Napoleon — all slightly akilter.
There have been changes over the course of 100-plus years. Bathrooms have been moved. Kitchen equipment added. At the insistence of the city inspectors, the peeling ceiling was varnished. Instead of attorneys, office workers and Tulane students, today the customers primarily are tourists who struggle to pronounce “muffuletta” and ask for olive salad on the side.
And now, Napoleon House will undergo the biggest change in its history. Sal and his four sisters, who jointly own Napoleon House, will sign it over to Brennan on April 30.
“I said maybe I’ll keep it going to the 100th year,” Sal said. That happened in 2014. “About two years before the anniversary, I came to the realization that no family (member) wanted to take it over.”
Finding the right buyer
The Impastatos thought it would take years to sell Napoleon House. They didn’t want to list it on the open market. They wanted a buyer they could trust.
“I’ve never been in any other business but this, and I’m not sure how those corporate businesses are run,” Sal said. “But unless you have some interest in a place, they don’t run right. You have to have a vested interest in a place, especially a restaurant.”
Sal’s accountant knew Brennan. He suggested that the two men talk. That was 18 months ago.
“I certainly never had any thoughts about Napoleon House,” Brennan said. “I’ve admired it from a distance for a long time, but I never thought it would come up.”
The Impastatos liked Brennan’s operations. They liked that he also was part of a restaurant family. They decided to sell to Brennan, the first buyer they approached.
The terms of the deal were not disclosed.
Now Brennan will run two New Orleans landmarks: Brennan’s on Royal Street and the Napoleon House.
“It’s an honor,” Brennan said. “It’s a great family operation. This city is a family city. It’s unfortunate that Sal doesn’t have anyone, but it will be an opportunity for us to continue that tradition.”
Respect for tradition
At Brennan’s, which his family opened in 1956, Ralph Brennan tore down the walls and jackhammered the floors before reopening it after an estimated $20 million renovation and with a high-profile chef. At Napoleon House, he doesn’t want to disturb a thing.
Napoleon House (2008)
This is the Napoleon House on Chartres Street in the French Quarter in New Orleans as seen in 2008. (Kathy Anderson / The Times-Picayune)
“I don’t plan to do anything but learn from Sal and his family,” Brennan said. “It’s such a spectacular place.”
The Napoleon House, Brennan said, has been well maintained by the Impastatos. He doesn’t anticipate the need for any major renovations.
After Hurricane Katrina, Napoleon House was undamaged but lost most of its longtime employees. Brennan, though, plans to offer the entire staff jobs, including Sal’s son Nicholas, who has worked there three decades but didn’t want to take on the business.
Sal and his two sisters who work at Napoleon House, Maria Impastato and Jane Lala, will stay for as long as Brennan needs them. On busy weekends, Sal said he’d be happy to lend a hand.
“It’s tough, and it’s going to be tough,” Sal said, “but that’s basically it.”
Napoleon House: 500 Chartres St., New Orleans, 504.524.9752
thanks to: http://www.nola.com/dining/index.ssf/2015/03/napoleon_house_sold_to_ralph_b.html