By JOHN DeMERS
“When you’re writin’ your book, you remember Calvin, all right?”
It’s 7:38 a.m. and, thanks to the breakfast he’s serving me on my private balcony overlooking the summertime jungle of a courtyard, I don’t suspect Calvin needs to worry about being remembered. Like several other key personnel at the Soniat House in the French Quarter, the white-haired gentleman with the even whiter jacket and the tiny black bow tie has been here almost since the beginning. And if that doesn’t mean “c. 1830” as noted officially on the sign outside, then time is a deceptive thing indeed.
Like a man without a country, the Soniat House is a hotel without a flag – meaning, in hospitality industry lingo, without a familiar and reassuring tag like Hilton, Marriott or Hyatt. The property does belong to the Small Luxury Hotels of the World – and keeps the thick book of its siblings in each of its 30 quirky, highly individualized guest rooms. But in terms of real guest experience, the Soniat House doesn’t belong to anybody or anything other than New Orleans.
Created with immense love by Rodney and Frances Smith since it opened in 1984, the Soniat House overlooks one of the real landmarks of New Orleans history: the walled convent built for the original French Ursuline nuns back in 1752. It is only blocks from everything else of any value in the French Quarter: the St. Louis Cathedral, the Cabildo, the Presbytere and the Pontalbas, the latter two buildings that allegedly housed the first actual apartments in the United States. All of those overlook Jackson Square, the former French and then Spanish and then French again military parade ground. In this part of the Quarter, and especially the closer you get to the Soniat House on Chartres, your mind forgets there ever was such a thing as Bourbon Street.
This is the residential French Quarter – yes, Virginia, there actually is such a place – stretching away from the loud, alcohol-swilling tourist traps toward the graceful oaks of Esplanade. Beyond that is the Faubourg Marigny, and beyond that, Bywater, but a good deal of the funkiness and virtually all of the gentility old New Orleans has to offer starts a bit early, right in the vicinity of the Smiths’ hotel. Give a listen, even from the balcony overlooking the street. You don’t hear the hawkers in front of the strip clubs. You don’t hear the bands battling it out with decibels across street corners. You don’t even hear the cars blowing their horns to make drunken tourists clear the intersection. All you hear is a delicious silence, broken every so often by the singsong of church bells.
You get the feeling that the Smiths got into the hotel business primarily because they’d collected too many antiques to fit into their home. Indeed, antiques chosen carefully and personally are what give each room and suite at the Soniat House its personality. They are lovingly eccentric. In my room, for instance, there’s a porcelain wash bowl on a piece of wooden furniture in the bathroom, clogging the six or so feet between the sink and the tub. I’m not sure how dirty you can get on that short of a stroll, of if you’ll need to rest in the wooden chair provided, but there it is. I suspect the Smiths really liked the porcelain bowl and everything else grew up around it.
And then, there’s the thousand and one other people, places and things that make the Soniat House more your home in New Orleans than your hotel. There’s the series of winding hallways, staircases and verandas that, over the decades, have turned three townhouses into one. There are the blossoming, blooming and sometimes exploding gardens, near-tropical plants that threaten to cover every square foot of old brick and climb up every length of wood or burnished metal. And then, of course, there’s Calvin and that breakfast.
It arrives on a tray on your antique table. There’s coffee so dark is seems to suck all the milk on earth into a black hole, virtually without impact. There’s fresh-squeezed orange juice that’s bright orange. There’s fresh-made strawberry preserves that are bright red. And most of all, there are flaky, crumbly biscuits, made with much less butter and salt than commercial biscuits have taught us to expect. Like ‘em hot? No problem – they appear on command in a woven basket, three biscuits per person, wrapped up with a hot tile inscribed “The Soniat House.”
Through neither the hotel’s fault nor mine, it was 25 years between my first visit to the Soniat House and the visit just completed to attend the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience. If Calvin can come up with a way to use that tile to deliver piping-hot pizzas to my suite in the evening, I think I’ll come back a lot more often.