Linda and her daughter Lauren come from New Orleans and they never really dreamt of becoming club owners. “I was a psychotherapist in Louisiana. I came here with my daughter just to take a break for a couple of years. I kind of wanted to do something else. Someone told me about this place and I thought ‘that may be fun’...and that was 14 years ago...” At that time La Belle Epoque was already a place with a lot of history, open only for private parties. Built in 1860 by the P. Lorilard Company, at the turn of the century it was used as a china and womens store and then as a ladies boutique. Then it became a restaurant, only to turn into an artist’s studio in the mid-20th century. In 1981, the noted designer Howard Kaplan redesigned the space to replicate the environment and ambience of La Belle Epoque - “the gilded era”, as it’s called, “when Paris was the civilized world’s capital of elegant entertaining, artistic genius and stimulating conversation.” He put an 1880 pewter-top bar, lighted by a stained glass peacock, originating from Paris famous Saisons Bleu restaurant in the Les Halles district, a Neo-Renaissance mantel/fireplace and statues of the Four Seasons fronting private banquets with French Bentwood tables. The painted tile floor is dated circa 1907 and a few original iron subway markers come from four of Paris’ most famous Metro stops to adorn the walls. Kaplan even inserted a telephone booth with a hydraulic lift of the Napoleon III period. Needless to say all the bistro chairs and tables are authentic.
The room opened in the ‘80s to private parties but in 1991 Linda and Lauren had another vision. “I couldn’t stop noticing the natural good acoustics of the place, not to mention the unique beauty of it. Unless one was invited to a milestone event, no one was able to admire this room. Well, I started the jazz brunch. You know we are from New Orleans, jazz is in our DNA. So I put the word out that I was going to do jazz. I called Ellis Marsalis and I asked him if he knew any traditional jazz musicians in New York. He gave me some names, I called a few of them, they responded. After a very short time they started calling me. You know, there are not many places supporting traditional jazz… I’ve tried also some contemporary jazz, but for some reason it doesn’t sound right in the room. La Belle Epoque has been built for ragtime, bebop, classical jazz.”
Bertha Hope, who plays here regularly, confirms “It’s one of the very few clubs in New York where we could play repertoire. In many clubs it is difficult to have an evening dedicated completely to the work of Elmo [Hope]. Linda instead loves this kind of jazz. And I play there anytime it’s possible: I’ve played there with a quartet, a quintet, a sextet and it has always been a magic experience. I even celebrate my late husband’s birthday there. That room has something magic, maybe it is the décor, maybe it is the people and maybe it is the food! Everything is so delicious over there. I just wish we could do more jazz, I know how much Linda cares about jazz.”
Nowadays in fact the blossoming balconies at the second floor of an antique building on Broadway are known not only for jazz. Thursdays are Cuban Salsa nights while Fridays are Argentine Tango hours. “The Salsa and Tango nights have promoters. They have websites, they hire the instructors and the musicians. I don’t get involved. I take care only of the Saturdays and Sundays jazz brunch,” says Southerland.
As for the tasty Creole/French/American menu, Linda suggests her favorite dish, Creole Melange, a mix of New Orleans specialties to be wet by “milk punch”, “a kind of Mimosa or Bloody Mary for the morning. Very New Orleans.”
Having everything one could think of for a special night doesn’t make it for the business. “One problem is that we are on the second floor; it’s not the best for the promotion of the place. We are a small family business, and it’s very difficult to remind people we are there. And I cannot even afford to promote events because I don’t book too far ahead. The money comes from private parties. These are what really pay the rent! But we want to keep doing as much jazz as possible, at least two to four times a week. Jazz is our thing and this stage has seen a lot of great players.”
~ Laura Caparrotti