One of the French Quarter's tastier landmarks. (Photo by Patricia B. Mitchell.)
“And on my left, the Slave Exchange.” — So say the carriage drivers as they pass by one of the French Quarter's tastier landmarks. Inside the bar-restaurant, where people once bid for slaves, you can now order some of the thickest, juiciest, meatiest sandwiches in town, and some of the hottest chili.
Maspero's concentrates on serving a few delicious sandwiches rather than overextending themselves into a more complex menu. What they do they do well. Their chopped sirloin (hamburger) reminds one of pre-inflation days when meat tasted the way it was supposed to and prices made you feel you were getting a bargain. One of the hallmarks of Maspero's success is in the copious portions of meat, about an inch thick, and the delicious drippy dressings that complement the meats. Hamburger, pastrami, corned beef — Maspero's makes hungry people feel like they have come to the right place.
Not only a restaurant, Maspero's is a living part of the history of this city. It dates back to 1788. In that year Don Juan Paillet purchased the present site from Don Nerciso Alva. It was the same year that Señor Paillet had to construct a new building over the ruins. What emerged has remained virtually unchanged ever since. In fact, the Paillet family owned the building for ninety years. During that time this site housed New Orleans' first Chamber of Commerce, organized in 1806. It was here that the Lafitte brothers, Jean and Pierre, conducted some of their operations, soliciting orders of smuggled and pirates goods among the city's elite.
It was here that Andrew Jackson plotted the battle of New Orleans and later on conspirators met to foment revolutions in neighboring countries. It was also here that thousands of human beings, fresh off the slave ships, found themselves in the entresol (the hidden room tucked between the present restaurant and the spacious apartments above) awaiting their fates in the slave exchange below, where they would be sold to the highest bidder.
Although the building belonged to the Paillet family it was named for Pierre Maspero, who operated the exchange. It was “Maspero's Exchange” to the English-speaking and “La Bourse de Maspero” to the French.
In the 1930's a writer for the W.P.A. had this to say about Maspero's old “Exchange Coffee House”: “Judges, generals, soldiers, merchants, and planters met to carry on commercial transactions, and the gay buccaneers of the Baratara gathered in secret meetings.”
It is interesting to compare this with a quote from the present-day owner, Charles Malachias, a native New Orleanian and twenty-year veteran in the restaurant business. (He has been Maspero's owner-operator for the past 3½ years.) “We have a good clientele. We go from judges to lawyers. We have doctors, students, artists, construction workers. We have all facets of life. There's no one particular type of people we serve at Maspero's. That's what makes it so great.”
The location of Maspero's is a tremendous asset as far as serving such a rich variety of clientele is concerned. Located on the corner of Chartres and St. Louis, the posh Royal Orleans Hotel is practically next door. The Civil Courts Building (which now houses the Federal District Court) across the street provides the judges, lawyers, and even defendants. One can only imagine the modern intrigues that were carried on over cheeseburgers or pastrami sandwiches during the much-publicized Garrison bribery trial, the H. Rap Brown trail, or the hearing for Lieutenant Calley. Jackson Square artists often bring their clients to this historic landmark to impress them with the juicy, hearty sandwiches and reasonable prices. A few yards down Chartres is WDSU, Channel 6. The local television personalities and their crews gather daily to meet the public and eat, drink, and relax.
Malachais has known the restaurant business practically all his adult life. He once had a restaurant on Canal Street but changed locations and “for years I was on the highway. I always had a desire to come back to the city. A friend of mine had a place in the French Quarter which is no longer in business. I worked there along with him, helping him out a few months. I got to know the beat of the Quarter and to know the different people that were coming in from all parts of the United States and the world. It was really appealing to me, so I started looking for a place of my own. I found Maspero's.”
“I got to know the beat of the Quarter.”
At Maspero's, Malachais devised a menu that is unique in the French Quarter. “I think I'm probably the only one that sells pastrami. Personally, I like pastrami and I felt when I did open the place I would incorporate it into the menu.”
Customers are given a choice of the kind of bread they prefer on their sandwich; French bun, soft bun, or rye bread. All three types taste as fresh as you expect.
Maspero's is also well-known for its drinks, as Malachais readily acknowledges. “The most popular drink we serve during the summer is our Fruit Daiquiri. In the winter we do pretty well with our Irish Coffee. We also have Hurricanes, Planter's Punch, Pernod Suissesse, the Zombie, and Ramos Gin Fizz. The Ramos Gin Fizz has been an old New Orleans drink for years. Naturally, these are our own specifications — how much of this, how much of that.
The large bar-restaurant has walls of unplastered red brick, and a high ceiling with exposed beams and ceiling fans. The kitchen opens out onto the restaurant, in full view of the public. Malachais' elaborately-carved wooden bar is an important element in Maspero's décor. “The bar was in the place when I bought the business, and it belongs to me. The man I bought it from, Mose Milano (who owns the building), bought it from a place that went out of business about twenty-five or thirty years ago. It was in Mack's-in-the-Alley. It was an old, old-time bar… supposedly one hundred and fifteen years old.”
The waitresses are sexy and as succulent-looking as the sandwiches they serve. During lunch or dinner hours the restaurant maybe crowded and one might feel a bit rushes, but usually the service is polite and friendly. The cooks, mostly young men in their twenties, work hard to keep up with the heavy flow of hungry customers.
One can imagine that years and years from now some historian will say, “During the 1970's Maspero's was a gathering place for judges, lawyers, doctors, students, television personalities, artists, cab drivers, construction workers….”
Thanks to Charles Malachais, Maspero's is still a vital part of the history of this city “ and tasty, too!”
Copyright © 1975–2006 Henry H. Mitchell.