All through the spring, as the renovations of the new NOPSI Hotel neared completion, I saw how New Orleans people were watching.
They stopped to cast long looks from across Baronne Street and, once the construction barricades were gone, they stepped right up, cupping hands to the glass to peer inside. They were getting a glimpse of what was to come, and also sizing up something historic but long hidden in the middle of downtown New Orleans.
Now that the hotel is open, they’re walking in for a meal at its restaurant, Public Service, a drink at one of its bars or just a look around at a familiar though once-forlorn spot.
Amid a wave of new development in downtown New Orleans, NOPSI Hotel has stood apart because of what NOPSI stood for. It’s the acronym for New Orleans Public Service Inc., the company that once provided electricity and gas in the city and operated its streetcars and buses.
NOPSI Hotel is the reanimation of the stately building that had been the utility company’s headquarters. It was dormant and boarded up for more than 30 years. After all that time, the reveal feels less like another hotel opening and more like the excavation of some buried piece of the city’s past, now polished up and re-engineered for new use.
The word NOPSI means nothing outside New Orleans. But in the city, NOPSI is part of a nostalgic lexicon, in a league with Schwegmann groceries, K&B pharmacies, D.H. Holmes and Krauss department stores.
Artifacts remain. The NOPSI name is pressed into iron manhole covers still in use around New Orleans and it's stamped into tin tags still attached to telephone poles.
More so though, the NOPSI name resonates thanks to the many ways the utility worked its brand into daily New Orleans life. A company in the business of selling electricity and gas produced cookbooks, distributed home ec primers and even hosted cooking classes. Because it provided the necessities, all of New Orleans interacted with NOPSI, and in those days that often meant in-person visits to the headquarters.
In the same lobby where they paid bills, people are now ordering drinks at a curving marble bar, with an adjoining outdoor patio. Nine floors up, there’s a separate open-air rooftop bar that gives views of the city skyline from the middle of it.
The hotel’s restaurant is called Public Service, a reference to an older name for NOPSI. It’s a contemporary restaurant with deep booths, an open kitchen and a menu of modern Southern comfort food. That means chicken fried soft shell crabs with watermelon ranch dressing, flatbreads topped with roast beef and gravy, a raw bar and a rotisserie for roasted chickens and stuffed shrimp.
Back in the day, NOPSI’s role as a utility company was the definition of utilitarian. But even then NOPSI’s home base greeted its customers with grandeur in a lobby of soaring, vaulted ceilings between ornamented columns and over terrazzo floors. Step inside today and it feels like you’re in an elegant indoor piazza, connecting the bars and the Public Service restaurant.
The lobby floors gleam but they hardly look new. They’re not supposed to. Instead they show the wear of foot traffic from years past as a patina. Like those old NOPSI logos that still dot New Orleans streets, it's a reminder than while history runs deep in this town, sometimes it's right underfoot, too.
317 Baronne St., 844-439-1463
Public Service restaurant
311 Baronne St., 504-962-6527
Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.