A Hotel with Heart
The feline charm of New Orleans' Soniat House
When the French Opera House on Bourbon Street burned to ashes in 1919, the Times-Picayune lamented that “the heart of the old French Quarter has stopped beating.” Almost a century later, Hurricane Katrina tried to accomplish what flames could not. But I knew the heart of America’s most distinctive city was still beating when I learned that both the Soniat House hotel and its dowager feline, Clarisse, had ridden out the storm.
As for how stoutly New Orleans hearts can beat, consider this tale. The Soniat’s resident owners, Frances and Rodney Smith, were in Paris when Katrina hit. The dainty, albeit imperious, Clarisse weathered the storm alone in her favorite second-floor suite, No. 25. With the paralyzed city still in full lockdown, the Smiths’ two grown sons, packing guns and wearing body armor, talked their way past National Guard roadblocks and rescued Clarisse, whose friskiness belies her sixteen years. “She’d just got back from her annual physical. It cost nine hundred dollars. Rodney almost had a fit,” says Frances. Clarisse’s favorite human, longtime desk clerk Richard Thompson, talked him down about the vet’s bill.
“Richard said, ‘Rodney, she’s our number-one selling tool.’”
Even Clarisse’s fans know that a cat alone did not get the Soniat on just about every “best hotels” list you can name. It occupies three classic creole townhouses built by the wealthy planter Joseph Soniat DuFossat and his son Edward in the early 1830s. In 1983, the Smiths began gently configuring them into a thirty-three-room boutique hotel. Its antiques, vintage carpets, and bayou-flavored paintings, the winding staircases and dripping fountains and fronded gardens—all hiding behind heavy green doors that must be opened from within—capture perfectly the down-at-the-heels glamour of the city of dreamy dreams. The place drives travel writers mad with superlative love. For example, here’s a reporter for Gourmet on a first glimpse behind the green doors: “Gently the door swings open. Two courtly porters lead us into a stone carriageway by the light of a million flickering candles. It is the most exquisite entrance on earth.”
Devotees of the Amalfi Coast and, for that matter, Charleston, South Carolina, might want to challenge that claim, but you get the idea. I love that carriageway, too, in part because it often provides a first glimpse of Clarisse, curled in her favorite chair in the adjoining honor bar or walking across the check-in desk. To be visited in one’s room by Clarisse is a great compliment. She may stay for ten minutes or eight hours. A true Crescent City courtesan, she can be wooed, but never detained.
Next to the beauty of the place and the graciously unobtrusive staff, my wife, Krystyna, and I like the biscuits, which are made and baked on the premises. They arrive each morning in a basket, wrapped in linen napkins atop a heated brick. There’s only strawberry jam, imported from Rodney’s hometown, Ponchatoula, known as the Strawberry Capital of the World. If there’s a bad room at the Soniat, I haven’t had it yet, and I generally take potluck. For breakfast on the second day, we usually stroll past General Beauregard’s garden and over to Jackson Square for beignets at Café du Monde. Then it’s back to the biscuits on the third morning or maybe brunch at Arnaud’s if it’s a Sunday. The Soniat encourages that kind of schedule, a slow echo of the beating of New Orleans’ own heart—a rhythm indomitable and immemorial, as the former French Quarter character William Faulkner might have put it.