Lula Restaurant Distillery co-owner and head chef Jess Bourgeois pauses during construction on the former Halpern's Furnishings Store on St. Charles Avenue. The restaurant is expected to open in November.
A massive copper still from Carl Distilleries in Germany arrived on a ship at the Port of New Orleans last week, and soon it will become the centerpiece of Lula Restaurant Distillery, slated to open in November the former Halpern's Furnishings Store on St. Charles Avenue.
The restaurant is a first step in the planned redevelopment of the entire block into a major expansion of the Prytania Park Hotel, which is among a wave of boutique hotels opening in New Orleans outside the French Quarter and Central Business District.
Restaurateur Jess Bourgeois first introduced his idea for Lula to neighbors in the Lower Garden District in May 2014. Since then he has worked his way through not only city bureaucracy but also the Louisiana Legislature. With the help of former state Rep. Bryan Adams of Gretna, Bourgeois and partner Bear Caffery drafted successful legislation allowing "micro-distilleries" that produce fewer than 12,000 gallons of spirits a year and function similar to beer brewpubs.
Lula's distillery will make vodka, gin and rum from Louisiana sugar cane that will be sold and used in the restaurant and distributed to a handful of retailers.
Bourgeois and his partners began renovations on the Lula space in May, focusing first on the drainage and plumbing required for a restaurant and distillery. Those efforts are nearing completion, Bourgeois said, and changes to the building will be more visible soon.
Inside, heavy pine trusses cross each other 13 feet above the floor, with the top of the ceiling extending another 10 feet, giving the central dining room a majestic but industrial feel. The top of the copper still will reach into that ceiling space at the rear of the building, and diners will be able to see it in action. The restaurant also features large bay windows looking onto St. Charles Avenue.
"It's a great space," Bourgeois said. "It kind of just accentuates what we're doing here."
The menu at Lula is almost finished, said Bourgeois, who was raised in Donaldsonville and trained at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Austin, Texas, worked in the kitchen at Commander's Palace and for the Superior family of restaurants, most recently in Birmingham, Alabama. The menu reflects a melding of what he grew up eating and the techniques he learned professionally. Nothing costs more than $20.
While Bourgeois prepares the restaurant for opening the first week of November, the Halpern family prepares the rest of the block for future development. First, the family intends to convert a vacant lot at the corner of St. Charles Avenue and Melpomene Street into temporary parking for two years, said Dori Schulman, daughter of furniture store founder Alvin Halpern, who envisioned the block's transformation. He died in January.
"It's really going to make that corner nicer for the foreseeable future while other plans are put in place," said Tracie Ashe, an architect for Studio WTA, which is managing the project.
The family's long-term plan for the block is two major expansions of the 60-room Prytania Park Hotel, Schulman said. The first phase will be a new 48-room expansion replacing the temporary parking lot. The second phase will be a new 90-room building in a current parking lot on the Terpsichore Street side of the avenue. The new buildings will have their own parking structure, which Lula will share.
The Halperns' plans are among a wave of hotel projects planned outside traditional tourist centers.
The Pontchartrain Hotel on St. Charles Avenue underwent a major renovation that converted it from long-term living spaces into a boutique hotel and reopened the Caribbean Room and the Bayou Bar.
The Valentino family will open the 90-room Alder Hotel next to Ochsner Baptist Medical Center in spring of 2017, serving the hospital, the university community and visitors.
In Mid-City, the Loren Hotel and Suites will offer about 130 rooms near the University Medical Center complex, though its location on the Canal streetcar line will make it attractive to tourists as well.
Also in Mid-City, nearer the Lafitte Greenway, developer Ryan Donegan plans a $100 million mixed-use project behind the Rouses on S. Carrollton Avenue that would include a boutique hotel among its mix of fitness facilities and long-term housing.
Mavis Early, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Hotel & Lodging Association, said there is no single reason for the proliferation of new hotels outside the city's tourist core. As downtown becomes more redeveloped, potential locations for major hotels there are shrinking, Early said, but the continued growth and evolution of the tourist industry likely is a larger reason for the new development pattern. As the city draws international accolades as a tourist destination, Early said, even the traditionally slower summer months are seeing higher occupancy rates.
Early currently is tracking 2,000 new hotel rooms that are planned for the city, with 400 of them under construction. The new locations for the hotels reflect the ways the city is growing: Tulane University announced this year's incoming class is its largest, and the city is seeing growth as a wedding destination. New hospitals and expanded programs at City Park now provide more for tourists to do in Mid-City besides the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The growth in tourist activity outside the traditional hub of the French Quarter and CBD is encouraged by marketing campaigns such as "Follow Your NOLA."
"That's just a natural growth pattern to move out from the core," Early said. "There are different kinds of travelers, because more people are traveling, and seeing different parts of the city allows people to see our culture and what our city's about."