I have given cocktail walking tours in the French Quarter since 2012. On these tours, we pass the Napoleon House. There are two observations people regularly make about the bar: Wow, that place is awesome! and Wow, that place sure could use some work, or at least a coat of paint! These comments, though they may seem in opposition, are really just two sides of the same coin. If you are in the second camp, you may want to skip the Napoleon House. What New Orleanians call patina you may call disrepair. For us, the slightly crumbling facade of the bar speaks to two attributes New Orleanians prize: longevity and hospitality.
The Napoleon House was built in 1797 and was offered up by its owner as a refuge for the vanquished Emperor. He never came here, no matter what the buggy drivers may say. The only signs of Napoleon at the Napoleon House are a bust of the itty-bitty emperor behind the bar and a poster on the wall. The private home eventually became a grocery that served sandwiches. A bar in the back opened later. Joe Impastato ran the place in the 1950s, and it was under his tenure that the Pimm’s Cup became the signature drink of the bar. I have two favorite drinking spots at the Napoleon House. In the front room, I always shoot for a table at the window. Its well-worn wood is smoothed down from the thousands of elbows that have polished it to a shine. If window seats are full, I’ll see if there is seating in the spectacular yet intimate courtyard.
Regardless of where you sit, you’ll be surrounded by the swelling sounds of opera and classical music, a welcome change from the 1980s cover bands on Bourbon Street just a few blocks away. The Napoleon House remained under the proprietorship of the Impastato family until 2015, when they turned the reins over to Ralph Brennan, of Brennan’s Restaurant and Ralph’s on the Park. When the torch passed from one family to another, there was hardly a peep among locals. For a town that doesn’t handle change well, this is notable. But the Brennans are one of the few other families who can rival the Impastatos for longevity on the restaurant scene in New Orleans, and they seem to know what to do with this historic property, which is to not alter a damn thing.