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German-style beer hall was once a New Orleans hotspot | Entertainment/Life


Last week’s column about the old Academy of Music on St. Charles Street, which burned and was replaced around the turn of the century by the Rathskeller restaurant, brought up questions for some readers.

Specifically, it brought up one question, asked by multiple people. That question, presented in various forms, boils down to: 

“The Rat-WHAT?!” 

It’s a fair question, and the answer touches on the city’s German influences, Prohibition and early jazz. It includes a cameo by a young Louis Armstrong. 

But before we get there, we’ll have to go back to the turn of the 20th century and the surge in popularity of rathskellers in America.

The back story

Rathskeller is a German word, and it has nothing to do with rodents in your basement. Rather, it refers to a beer hall operating out of a building’s cellar – or “skeller,” in German. Originally, it applied specifically to taverns operating out of the skeller of a town hall, or “rathaus.” 

So: Rathaus + skeller = ratskeller. 

Around the turn of the 20th century, numerous American cities – many with newly arrived German populations – saw the opening of restaurants or bars calling themselves rathskellers, often featuring German décor. 

(An etymological aside: Unlike in Europe, American establishments tended to preserve the “h” after the “rat,” presumably to avoid the inevitable vermin connotation.) 







HISTORIC fabachers rathskeller.jpg

A circa 1917 photograph shows the two-story building housing Fabacher’s Rathskeller on St. Charles Street from 1905 to 1921, a lively New Orleans hotspot eventually done in by Prohibition. Upstairs were a number of offices. The building has since been replaced by a high-rise hotel.




And now, in New Orleans …

In July 1904, word arrived that the trend was coming to New Orleans. 

“This will be a rathskeller, frequent and famous in St. Louis and other northern cities, but hitherto unknown down here,” read a Daily Picayune article. “It will be of the real old German smack, with Dutch beer and edibles distinctly Dutch.” 

The two-story building containing it would be designed by Favrot & Livaudais in the colonial style, with a gray brick exterior, marble trim and a prominent pediment centered over its wide, three-bay frontage. 

Behind the plate-glass windows of each outer bay was room for a store, each with its own street entrance. Between them was the entrance to a 12-foot-wide arcade running to the rear, where the Rathskeller was located. (This is New Orleans; there was no cellar.) 

“It will be treated in old Dutch style,” the Picayune wrote of the Rathskeller, “with dark woodwork and walls covered with Dutch tapestry. There will be a wainscot 7 feet high, with a plate shelf and rail on top to hold long rows of multi-colored steins.” 

The floor was covered in red tiles – “of the old German pattern” – as were the two immense fireplaces flanking the room. 

Conceived and opened by Dr. G.K. Pratt, it was bought in 1905 by restaurateur Peter Fabacher, who booted the street-front tenants and expanded the restaurant operation, taking over the whole first floor. 

That would begin the glory days of the renamed Fabacher’s Rathskeller – not to be confused with the famous Fabacher’s Restaurant at Royal and Iberville streets, which had been founded in 1880 by Fabacher’s parents and later run by one of his brothers, Laurence Fabacher. 

Three in one

For its part, the Rathskeller was more than just a rathskeller. 

“(It) really consisted of three establishments, all served by the same kitchen,” said Sister Mary Josephine, an Ursuline nun and one of Peter Fabacher’s 14 children, in a 1973 interview with The Times-Picayune. “The most elaborate, of course, was the dining room, which sat about 100 and remained open to the early-morning hours. Then there was the lunch room, functioning on a ’round-the-clock basis, and the cafeteria, only open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.” 

In addition to the dining and drinks, Fabacher’s Rathskeller would become a hotspot for late-night dancing, with Max Fink and his jazz orchestra providing the music. A plus-sized night manager with a plus-sized personality known as “Big John” Terbeck added additional color to the nightly pageant. 

“It’s a place where soft lights play over the table while the music steals over you like you never thought it could,” a newspaper ad read. 

A soon-to-be-famous connection

It was also a place on the coal-delivery route of a 19-year-old Louis Armstrong. 

In his 1954 autobiography, “Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans,” Armstrong writes of a morning in November 1918 when he was unloading coal from his mule-drawn cart and wheeling it into Fabacher’s. As he was “sweating like mad,” several cars went past “making all kinds of noise.” 

Turns out, the Armistice of 1918 had been signed, ending World War I. 

That got Armstrong thinking. He quit his coal delivery job on the spot, telling his mother: “The war is over, and I quit the coal yard job for the last time. Now I can play my music the way I want to. And when I want to.” 

Killed by Prohibition

Soon after came Prohibition, and in January 1921, federal agents raided the Rathskeller, confiscated boxes of booze and arrested Peter Fabacher. It would close that same year. 

In eulogizing the Rathskeller, the Picayune nicely placed it into context in New Orleans of the day. 

“No more will its cozy corridor offer (a) comfortable and convenient meeting place for couples or parties; no more will crowds of curious and hungry inspect while appeasing their appetites, the many-shaped and antique steins which decorated the interior and gave to it much of its Bohemian atmosphere; no more with its lunch room furnish quick meals or the time-honored ‘coffee and’ to the ever-hurried workers with whom eating always means so much wasted time; no more will ‘Big John’ jovially receive and serve his hosts of friends and patrons.” 

It was replaced by a string of short-lived businesses. By 1938, the building was being used as a parking garage. 

Today, the InterContinental New Orleans Hotel stands on the site. In it is a pub fittingly named Pete’s, where the wistful can hoist a beer to Peter Fabacher, Big John Terbeck and New Orleans’ old Rathskeller. 

We recommend a German brew. 

In a stein, if you can manage it. 

Sources: The Times-Picayune archive; “Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans,” by Louis Armstrong.

Know of a New Orleans building worth profiling in this column, or just curious about one? Contact Mike Scott at moviegoermike@gmail.com.

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