The greater Southwest Louisiana area may be preparing for an economic boom. But at the moment, downtown Lake Charles is experiencing something quite a bit different from a boom.
Those who’ve long wished for the rebirth of the downtown undoubtedly hope it’s just a brief lull before a new burst of development.
But at the moment, at least five storefronts in the immediate downtown area are sitting empty. That’s the highest number of empty downtown spaces I’ve counted since I started doing the annual report nearly 15 years ago.
The most bothersome aspect of these closures is that two of them are for sites of former restaurants — the Sabine Crab Shack (at 345 Broad) and Happy Hippie Pizza (329 Broad). You can knock that number of restaurant closures up to three if you count the smoothie and breakfast shop that once operated at 709 Ryan St. It may have moved, but it’s no longer doing business downtown.
Restaurants and bars are the backbone of downtown revitalization. If downtown revitalization is ever to really kick in, the restaurants have to be there and the public has to get enthusiastic about them. This point has been made over and over during the last couple of decades. (Of course, restaurateurs can help the process along by keeping long hours and being open on weekends.)
One good indication that new development is underway is a sign at 324 Pujo St. (the Noble Building) that states that the spot is under restoration by Empire of the Seed.
As for the two spots we’re most concerned about, the news is good. The former site of Happy Hippie Pizza (329 Broad St.) will soon be the home of a new food and drink operation by successful downtown restaurateur and entrepreneur James Bittner, owner of the much-frequented downtown watering hole MacFarlane’s Celtic Pub.
It’ll be called the Pint House Pizzeria. It’ll include gelato products and a traditional ice cream soda counter. (Gelato is similar to ice cream, but has a lower fat content. Because it’s churned at a slow speed, it has a full, creamy texture. It also contains less air than ice cream, so that the flavors really pop out.)
Pint House Pizzeria should be open by the time this issue appears.
And the owners of the Blue Iguana (see review below) will soon expand into the site at Broad and Bilbo with a restaurant that serves food based on traditional Lake Charles recipes.
Gelato, an ice cream soda counter and traditional local recipes are all hip ideas that should catch the imagination of the public. We’ll cross our fingers and hope that these new operations wind up having broad appeal.
Whether there’s a downtown lull or transition or what have you, there’s plenty that’s popped up downtown during the last year. Let’s take a look.
HAUTE COUTURE SALON
On June 1, Angela Hoff began her ninth year as a local hair stylist. Many will remember her work in Westlake. When she opened Haute Couture Salon (601 Ryan St., 439-2977), she went from the 1,300 square feet of her Westlake location to a spacious 4,400 square feet. When I walked into the main hair styling area, it looked mighty big to me.
Hoff says the shop’s priorities aren’t typical for salons and other hair places. “It’s a bit different. We don’t treat our salon the way most people treat theirs. We make our guests very comfortable and at home.”
One thing that helps in this respect is the studio’s children’s room, where youths play video games and engage in other diversions.
“Make-up is a huge part of our culture here,” says Hoff, who is a fashion director and instructor for the Ultimate Face professional cosmetics company. This status, she says, gives her “the perfect mix of potential artistry and professionalism.”
The men’s part of the salon is still undergoing construction. It will have male-oriented themes. I was told that several swords on the wall were replicas of those used in the recent Tolkien movies. There are posters of those films as well. These are part of a long row of movie posters that runs all around the walls of the large space.
“Everyone [downtown has] been very welcoming,” says Hoff. “[The downtown] fits the vibe of the salon.”
“I get to make people feel good about themselves all day,” she says. “There’s really no downside to that.”
ALEXANDER ART STUDIO
I felt that local artist Candice Alexander had bitten off more than she could chew when she rented a spot in the front of the Charleston Hotel Building (901 Ryan St.; 433-2299). Several operations had come and gone in this spot, and I wasn’t sure a gallery was the thing to change that.
But Alexander is apparently quite industrious, and she’s wound up occupying the entire front of the hotel building, and even spilling outside a bit with some outdoor decoration, seating and performance space. She’s filled out the large interior space so that it’s both a free-flowing gallery and a gift shop.
The gallery is full of curiosities. In the northwest corner window is a reworking of a Picasso portrait highlighted with pieces of a broken mirror serving as accents. Also near the front window is a skillet filled to overflowing with antique marbles of strange shapes and hues.
Elsewhere, a large painted vent made to look like a multi-colored head wears an assortment of eye gear. In the southeast corner window is a vertical rectangle of wood covered with a good mock Pollock.
Most humorous is an old white wooden pig wearing a fleur de lis tee-shirt.
The shop must contain thousands of art items of some sort.
BLUE IGUANA CANTINA
The Blue Iguana Cantina is a new Mexican eatery at 723 Ryan St. (once the home of Chinese King restaurant).
Blue Iguana has the typical long Mexican restaurant menu but with some unusual entries. Consider, for example, the items in the seafood section. These include an eggplant stuffed with crabmeat and shrimp (Senora Iguana); jumbo shrimp sautéed in wine and lemon butter (Costa Maya) and shrimp and pablano peppers sautéed in a creamy sauce (Acapulco).
I began my lunch here with an item that was new to me: the appetizer Seafood Nachos. I got a stack of nachos generously coated with white sauce and all but floating in queso. The shrimp were a tad on the small side, but there were at least a few dozen of them.
This is comfort food for sure — both tasty and filling. Because the nacho chips had been baked, they had a taste very close to that of freshly fried chips. All of this blended together very well. There was also a pile of jalapeno slices, which I would, as a rule, devour. I couldn’t quite get them to work with this food combination in my head, but they probably would have been a fine addition if I’d mixed them in.
I ordered the small serving of seafood nachos and can assure you it would easily make a full meal for anyone who ate the whole thing. Even at $9, they’re a good deal. The large order, at $11, would, I imagine, be a huge meal.
For this initial lunch, I ordered an entrée as well: a traditional cheese enchilada plate. The cooks used yellow cheese just in the way I like it. The enchiladas were smaller than in some places, but I’d rather have food that’s a tad small but tastes delicious than a bunch of food that’s lackluster.
The enchiladas were surrounded by a dark brown gravy I felt was a little spicier and more peppery than the house salsa. The salsa was good even though it wasn’t red hot. It had a dense texture just right for dipping; there was nothing watery or runny about it.
The Spanish rice was also successful: dry and slightly peppery. There was ample salad on the plate for mixing in with the beans and rice. I think at least a small layer of some sort of cheese on top of the beans would be a good addition.
This is the best food I’ve had at a Mexican restaurant in Lake Charles.
The owners of the new spot have opted for minimal decoration, which I think was a good choice. The bar is small — another good choice given the somewhat limited seating of the space.
The restored historical brick walls are kept as is; they go a long way toward creating a relaxed and interesting atmosphere. By now, they’re like old friends.
Heist is located at 700 Ryan (the intersection of Ryan and Division, 433-9199). The driving idea behind this new spot (as I understand it) is that Lake Charles is ready for a decidedly upscale bar. As I was making my usual downtown tour in the 109 degree heat index, I felt that my clothing was downscale in every imaginable way, and what was in my wallet was even more downscale, so I didn’t stop in.
But I know the spot promotes “hand-crafted martinis” as well as specialty beers, such as St. Arnold Divine Reserve, Ogden and Founders. Small plates are served.
As I mentioned, dressy attire is expected. Prices range from $10-30.
Signage on the front of the Heist window conveys the restaurant’s atmosphere in three words:
Iconic Cocktails Wine
The spot is open Thursday through Saturday in the evenings and night.
Luna Live’s huge new snazzy, jet black awning seems to be announcing to the world that this is a big venue for local music. A neon sign for a beer or liquor — including LA 31 and Turbodog — hangs in each window of the second floor of the Luna Live building. (That floor and the one below it were both, long ago, part of a Sears building.)
The new streetscape continues to have a positive effect on the downtown. Four way stops at two Ryan Street intersections and extensions that narrow the roads in places make things a bit easier for pedestrians in at least a couple of blocks of Ryan.
Pedestrians are the only ones likely to see the new historical marker in the 800 block of Ryan Street. Commemorating what was once “an unbroken line of buildings” from Railroad Avenue to Clarence Street, the large metal sign is dedicated specifically to four buildings that once occupied the 822 to 840 lots.
The Weber Building was a six-story structure where lumber and other trade went on and arrangements were made for shipments on the Calcasieu River.
The Paramount Theater was one of more than 20 “movie palaces” that once stood in Lake Charles. All are now gone.
In the long and narrow Arcade Theatre, area residents were once entertained by the likes of Houdini and the Barrymores.
Finally, the Miller Building achieved historical register status some years ago. But it was destroyed by fire in 1985.
The informative plague is one of a number going up in the greater downtown area.
Other New Business
An Aflac Regional Office is now renting office space in the historic bank building at 800 Ryan St. Smart Signs at 311 Broad St. is promoting itself as a “SmartArt Design Shop.” Business is by appointment only. Check it out at ArtThatsSmart.com.
Bayou Title is now a tenant of the new Phoenix Building (so named because it commemorates the resurrection of downtown Lake Charles after the Great Fire of 1910) at the corner of Kirby and Ryan Streets. Other tenants in this elegant, New Orleans-style structure include Empire of the Seed; Hunt, Guillot and Associates; and Conestoga-Rovers and Associates. Aquatic Air Solutions has a new office in the 300 block of Kirby (across from the cathedral).