Window Shop In The Shade, Eat Syrup Cake On The Deck And Buy Wine In
A Bank Vault. There’s Lots To Do In Lake Arthur
The latest big development in the small town of Lake Arthur is The Bank Vault, or L’Banca Albergo (233 Arthur Avenue, 337-774-7249).
The hotel is a reworking of a former Jeff Davis Bank building. When Roberta and Bobby Palermo acquired the building, it had been ravaged by time and hurricanes. “It was a mess,” says Roberta. The first architect the Palermos consulted recommended the building be torn down.
Today, it’s a comfortable hotel with creative thematic twists that are a pleasure to behold. The check-in desk is an old bank teller’s station, complete with iron bars in the front. Embedded across the top of the teller’s station is a row of wine bottle corks.
The Wine Vault, where the hotel sells its Bank Vault vintages as well as some name brand wines, is located in the old Jeff Davis bank vault. This vault still has a round metal handle that sits under the large imprinted word AIR: a device that was obviously intended to get oxygen to anyone who became trapped in the vault.
Outside the door of each room in the hotel is an elaborate painting of the title of the room. First up is The Live Oak, the name of renowned Lake Arthur hotel that was built in 1885 and demolished in 1934. It was a favorite stopover of Franklin Roosevelt, who enjoyed Southwest Louisiana.
Each room of The Bank Hotel contains art that matches the theme of the room’s name.
The room with the most intriguing appearance is the The Bank. A drive thru vault desk and window are part of the room. Some of the original brick of the walls is visible. Also in the room is an old Diebold safe.
Above the vault, a single microphone hangs down from the top of the drive thru station by means of a steel pipe. A new granite counter top sits on top of the desk. On the desk are an assortment of old bank stamps. Guests leave $1 bills in the Diebold desk drawers.
For some reason, at least a couple of architects opposed the preservation of this drive thru structure. But it was meant to be part of the hotel. When the new hotel was being constructed, Bobby spent an entire day trying to remove the drive thru station with a sledge hammer. After a day of that fruitless labor, it was decided the station would stay put (as Roberta had wanted it to all along).
The Bank Room also has a distinctive wooden headboard that incorporates an antique door turned on its side. (A doorknob protrudes three feet above the pillows.) Throughout the hotel, headboards, many of which are made of wrought iron, rise five to six feet above the top of the mattress. Often the wrought iron headrests impart a New Orleans look.
Now worthless stock certificates hang on the walls outside The Bank room. One of these is a certificate for $60,000 of Cameron Oil Co. Stock.
On the second floor, The Chapman room focuses on themes related to Roberta’s family. Outside hangs the best historical photo I saw during my visit to Lake Arthur. An old country house is surrounded by a flood. Directly in front of the house, what appears to be a young man sits atop the bow of a large boat whose name, THE MYSTERY, runs along the side of the vessel in capital letters.
The boat is aptly named, for this is a mysterious photograph. First there’s the whole narrative of the image. The viewer wonders what was going on. Then there’s a feature that demonstrates how photos come to be thought to include images of ghosts. There’s just a sliver of a white figure on the far left of the house’s dark open doorway. This, I was told, was in fact Roberta’s grandmother, who was, obviously, standing a few feet behind the door’s threshold — we don’t know why.
The figure who appears to be a young man was actually Roberta’s brother, who was only 12 at the time. He was surely big for his age.
The color scheme of the hotel rooms is a brownish white for most walls with trim in a bluish gray. Often one wall of a room is painted in the gray. I think this gray is probably meant to echo the old industrial color of the metal work in the bank. The affect is aesthetically pleasing and calming.
The second floor includes a common area with a couch. This is where you’ll find an assortment of pastries (honey buns, Danish, Otis Spumkmeyer muffins) and a variety of breakfast coffee blends every morning.
The Heart Of Lake Arthur
Our room, The Hudson, named after Roberta’s grandson, was a spacious and comfortable second floor room that included two queen beds, two recliners, two dressers and an armoire. (All rooms have a clothes steamer.)
Our room was right next to the front balcony. Built on a New Orleans theme, the balcony has wrought iron poles and detail (some of it painted in a very dark purple that works well). There are rocking chairs, tables.
If you sit on this balcony, you will be at the heart of Lake Arthur. The town has only one strip, Arthur Avenue, and this is the spot where the strip starts getting busy.
Turn right, and you’ll pass through three or four blocks of shops and bars and restaurants. Then you’ll come to the lakeshore area, with its enormous park and the large restaurant on the water, The Regatta.
My wife Nydia and I watched a thunderstorm from this balcony. A long succession of big pick-ups came up Third Street toward the hotel; turned down Arthur Avenue; drove down to the lakefront area and then back up. In the very heaviest rain, a large number of truck drivers was cruising someone or something. I have no idea what it might have been in this small town.
When you come to Lake Arthur, you’re really made welcome. As I checked in, I was given a gift basket from the local shop Just B Cuz Gifts. The basket included scents in a variety of forms and a large ceramic utensil holder decorated with South Louisiana themes.
I found out during my walkabout on the next day that Just B Cuz Gifts (208 Arthur Avenue, 774-0334) offers t-shirts, handbags, coffee, potpourri and many more gift items for sale. There’s much art and many accessories on the fleur de lis motif.
It’s just one of the shops on Lake Arthur’s small but thriving and busy strip.
On the strip, wide sidewalks spread out under large overhangs. You can usually walk under shade. You can also sit under it, as a number of benches and chairs are scattered along the sidewalk.
Let’s look at a few more stops on the strip.
Among the many offerings at the Sugar Chic Co. Bakery & Café (112 Arthur Avenue, 337-774-5101) are truffles and homemade bread pudding. A display case shows off cakes the bakery and restaurant has prepared. One cake looks just like a wood duck; another has tiny baby feet on top.
Sugar Chic also offers more substantial fare. Its pizza is said to be one of the most popular in town.
As I relaxed in the refreshingly quiet and cool shop, I enjoyed a hot fudge sundae made with Blue Bell vanilla and coffee ice cream.
One wall preserves the brick of the original building. There’s plenty of outdoor seating.
Business hours have recently expanded into the weekend at this venue, so drive over and enjoy your pizza and Blue Bell.
One of the big stars of the strip is the LA Bar (118 Arthur Avenue, 337-774-9989). Bartender Lindsie Lacombe was kind enough give us the guided tour of this historical bar that’s been in operation since 1903. (Lacombe nonchalantly mentioned she could easily work a crowd of 75. She’s also a pretty good storyteller.)
The LA Bar remained open during prohibition. The liquor was served in the upstairs portion of the building, which was, at that time, also a card playing parlor. “A lot of illegal things went on up there,” says Lacombe.
People who wound up with a royal flush had their deck of cards nailed to the wooden ceiling of the upstairs room. During a recent remodel, a chunk of ceiling with one such deck was cut out. You can request to see it at the bar.
It’s said that women weren’t allowed in the bar until the 1960s. One of the subjects of town talk is the sign that used to hang in the back that read “Women Are Allowed As Long As They Refrain From Excessive Talking.” A few years ago, someone stole the sign, probably at one of the town’s Regatta Festivals.
Among the hundreds of historical artifacts on the shelves and walls of the bar are the “Little Nicks” — the tiny duck decoys made by former owner Nick Trahan. These are said to be worth $500 each.
Colorful antique or vintage tin signs on the walls read:
— FREE BEER! tomorrow
— I don’t always drink beer, but when I do … I prefer to drink a lot of it.
These are joined by a large circular metal sign for Dixie (45) Beer.
Making this colorful-looking old bar even more colorful is the rumor that it’s haunted. Employees swear that when they come to work in the morning, someone or something has left dimes on the counter and tables.
Bloody Marys are served at the LA Bar at 8 am on the weekends. The secret recipe includes (I am told) beans, carrots and okra.
A few blocks up the strip and a bit away from the busy part is Nott’s Corner Cajun Restaurant (639 Arthur Avenue, 337-774-2332). The building is unassuming, but there’s nothing unassuming about the 15-feet-tall metal sculpture of a crawfish that sits in front of it.
Among the many historical photos that decorate the walls was the large one that hung right next to our table: a majestic shot of the long vanished Live Oak Hotel.
For my main course, I had the crab pasta with white sauce. The sauce was thick and had a smooth consistency and a hint of butter. One challenge with white sauce is to refrain from using too much; there was plenty in this dish, but somehow it never overpowered the taste and texture of the angel hair pasta. Small pieces of crab were blended into the sauce throughout. The meal was delicious and a great success.
My wife Nydia got the red snapper. The texture of the fish was firm but never chewy. The fish may have been marinated; the taste had real flavor. There was nothing of the rubber chicken taste that a poorly prepared thick fish filet can have.
For dessert, we were served a traditional Cajun bread pudding. I don’t like rum sauces in which the taste of the rum is dominant; in this one, it wasn’t. The sauce was rich, buttery and abundant. The serving size of bread pudding was right — enough to satisfy, not enough to stuff.
Courteous owner Carl Higginbotham worked the room, going from table to table. This old school Cajun can recall taking first grade instruction in French — a language that was the only one his grandfather spoke. He told us what he’d learned about preparing fish during the years he’d spent living in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Also On The Strip
The Green Pea Art Studio is the site of art lessons, canvas and cocktail parties and birthday parties. Much Louisiana-themed art is sold here.
There’s also a Meaux’ Pharmacy, a flower shop, an ice cream parlor, the Beer 30 Lounge and other enterprises.
The storefront at 110 Arthur Avenue has a large display of antique medical memorabilia.
If you want to go kayaking, go to the booth right next to Sugar Chic. Muddy Water Rentals is located at 114 Arthur Avenue. This operation rents single and double kayaks, pedal boats, paddleboards and plain tubes and tubes with backrests by the hour or day. For rental rates, call 337-774-8583 or visit email@example.com.
One Lake Arthur landmark that isn’t on the strip is the old school diner Pappy’s (323 Calcasieu Avenue, 774-3334; Monday-Saturday 7 am-9 pm), which has been around since 1957. It was named after its first owner, alderman Carl Andrus, called “Pappy.”
Andrus started off by selling snow cones from his back porch. Early on, he and his wife made barbecue in a Magnalite pot. The pot made enough barbecue for 50, which meant 50 plate lunches were served each day.
In 1967, the shop was sold to Edward and Patsy Sonnier, who are said to have sold 210 hamburgers on their first day of business.
The day we dined at Pappy’s, I had the Super Jack burger, which I selected because it has five or six kinds of peppers on it. One of the dressings was breaded and fried slices of jalapeno. Of course, the cheese was pepperjack.
The sandwich met the criteria of the old-fashioned burger royally. I note in particular that both parts of the bun had been well grilled in butter. The pepper taste was agreeable and not too strong to run the risk of being harsh.
A side order of hush puppies was marked by the inclusion of jalapeno slices.
I’m not really an onion ring person. But I was told by Nydia that her onion rings, which were large and made with thickly sliced onion, were homemade, fresh and tasty.
When you get to the very end of the strip, you’re on the Lake Arthur beach. One of the major attractions is The Regatta restaurant (508 Hawkeye Avenue, 337-774-1504, regattarestaurantla.com). Boats of all sorts pull up and dock here; often the owners stay overnight. House manager Dave Dupre told me sea planes land at the spot. He said yachts come in from as far away as Corpus Christi.
The restaurant is an homage to the Wave Café, a restaurant that thrived on the same spot in the early 1900s and was destroyed by Hurricane Audrey.
Nydia and I ate on the large outdoor deck which sits over the lake. If you can, face the lake and look out over the calm waters to the trees that rise up along the shore far away on the other side of the lake. It’s a calming sight.
For my entrée, I ordered the grilled duck with cane syrup. The menu promised I would get half a broiled duck, and I was afraid I wouldn’t get enough. I needn’t have worried.
All the skin on this sizable duck half was properly spiced and very crispy — crispy all over; even on the bottom of the bird. The crispness of the skin and the texture of the hot subcutaneous fat made a perfect blend. It was a bit like what happens with well-prepared cracklins. It was all delicious, but be aware this is a very rich dish.
The taste of the cane syrup didn’t get lost in the cooking process. I could taste it easily in each bite. It made a dramatic and exotic complement to the duck. You don’t always find the exotic in Cajun restaurants. I can assure you you’ll find it at this venue. (We’ll see this also in the dishes I’ll describe below.)
This dish is a specialty of the house, as is the side dish I ordered: corn grits. I was a bit surprised that the corn grits had many kernels of cooked corn scattered through them. They were a slightly sweet treat, and appropriately light for the duck.
My dessert was syrup cake, which I ordered because I thought I’d never had it. I was right. I’m sure I never ate anything like this while I was growing up in Tennessee. The cake was big and has a dense texture, a bit like that of peasant bread. Again, the taste of the syrup was pronounced. If you’re a big fan of the taste of ginger (in the cake) and molasses (in the syrup), this will be your dish. But get a light entrée in preparation for it.
For appetizers, Nydia and I shared two that townspeople had told us were popular: Cajun Bait (shrimp and crawfish in a fried patty — all meat; no dressing inside) and the Broccoli Balls, which were broccoli, cheese and bacon rolled in a ball, breaded and deep fried. The latter appetizer, I think, is the dish for anyone who’s dreamed of having fried breaded bacon. It’s very tasty, but a few make a meal.
“We’ve become a destination place. The word’s gotten out,” says Dupre. The word had certainly gotten out the night we went, as some large parties waited more than an hour for an indoor (air-conditioned) table. Fortunately, there was no wait for the deck, which was where we wanted to sit anyway.
I was surprised by the level of activity on the deck. Quite a few people were milling around, talking and sipping on their tall drinks. A number posed for photos, using the lake as the background.
The Old Machine Shop
Towards the end of our tour, Roberta and Bobby gave us a tour of their lakeside home, which is a retooling of Lake Arthur’s old machine shop. Outside the entrance, the sign that reads Lake Arthur Machine Shop, W.G. Chapman, Est. 1901, still hangs from a bough of a live oak.
The shop, which the couple has owned since 2000, was a place for repairs of boats in Lake Arthur for decades.
The present-day home is made mostly from old cypress and long leaf pine that came from the original shop. In the upstairs, there’s a wide variety of tongue and groove walls with boards of different widths. On the walls are sheets of the tin ceiling from the old Lake Charles Fair building.
A number of windows that were preserved from the Chicago World Fair of 1893 decorate the walls.
Inside the house, old boating artifacts are everywhere. The handle of the staircase is the “cool kill” [pipes used to cool a motor] from an old boat painted glossy black. Decorations include a ship’s porthole window and a boat wheel.
Some brass propellers were welded together to make a centerpiece candleholder for the table. But 200 brass propellers in the shop were sold for scrap.
This isn’t surprising given the amount of antique and scrap wood and hardware that was left in the shop when Roberta and Bobby took over. In many places, they say, the piles of old materials rose above the height of an adult person.
A few smaller piles can still be seen in the part of the shop that’s closest to the road — a large workroom that’s been preserved just as it was. A long assemblage of axles and gears is run by numerous huge belts that hang down from the ceiling. Roberta says that if power is applied, this huge assemblage can still be made to run. That’s a shock, since the thing looks ancient.
But then most of the preserved part of the shop looks ancient. There’s a thick coat of oil and dirt one smells the instant one enters. Thousands of pieces of old hardware still reside in the wooden pigeonholes once constructed for them.
A large, very old chart of “US Standard Threads Bolts and Nuts” hangs in a dust-covered frame.
In the gaps between the old cypress floor planks, it’s easy to see the water of the lake.
The mix of very much of the old and very little of the new in the renovated house pleases the owners. “We love it,” says Roberta.
After the tour of the house, they offered to take us on a tour of the lake in a pontoon boat that had lots of stuffed chairs and sofas just like those you’d see in a cozy den.
“On the water, it’s always cool,” says Roberta. “There’s always a nice breeze.”
Bobby took us up the lake, then up the Mermentau River. Soon we came to an area which, he said, was made up of six consecutive miles of bayou. It was pristine and peaceful, with only the occasional reminder of Rita.
Longtime residents of Lake Arthur often speak of an age of relative success for the small town. “It was a very busy town,” says Roberta. “Superior Oil was here.”
The age of prosperity and the town’s vitality took a big hit years ago. You can see it all over Lake Arthur, in the boarded up and deteriorated storefronts. “The town’s gone to nothing for so long,” says Roberta.
Today statements about the economy range from “Lake Arthur needs to come back” to “Lake Arthur’s coming back.”
Be that as it may, tourism and overall commerce are brisk at the spots I’ve mentioned. There’s plenty to keep you amused and relaxed for a weekend in Lake Arthur. The vital part of the strip is free of boarded-up buildings. It can get busy, and you may want to park a couple of blocks from the lake and walk from place to place.
Whether you go by I-10 or Highway 90, Lake Arthur is less than an hour’s drive from Lake Charles.