[First published in AOL Travel/Huffington Post Canada]
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA — Each night, Muriel’s restaurant sets a table for Antoine. It’s beneath an ornate chandelier at the foot of a staircase leading to the upstairs bar. The table cloth is white, there’s a candle and a setting for two, with plates, utensils, napkins and glasses for red wine. A waiter will place a basket of French bread in the centre as well as a bottle of wine, usually Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley. This is the way Antoine likes it and there’s nothing unusual about the scene except Antoine has been dead for 198 years.
The ghost table at Muriel’s has become a draw for this city’s many paranormal tours. Groups stand outside an iron gate and peer through the window to catch a slight glimpse of the table, which Muriel’s put in place after Hurricane Katrina, in part to help calm the active spirit. With Mardi Gras approaching on Feb. 21, visitors will arrive by the thousands looking for fun, excitement and the bizarre happenings that have brought this city fame. Muriel’s is sure to attract more than a few party-goers looking to scare up a good time.
“This is the most haunted place in the city,” declares George Dubaz, a tour guide with Spirit Tours. Dubaz stands outside the restaurant on Chartres Street in the French Quarter and points to the large, two-storey building that has stood on the property in one form or another since the mid-1700s. “Some of the staff members will tell you they’ve seen glasses fly across the room.”
Dubaz says he wasn’t a believer in ghosts until he moved from Biloxi, Mississippi to New Orleans after the 2005 hurricane that devastated the Crescent City. Now, he says, “I’ve seen and heard of too many strange things for there not to be something to it.”
At Muriel’s, that something is by many accounts a wine-loving gambler who loves his home so much he refuses to leave. Pierre Antoine Lepardi Jourdan committed suicide shortly after losing the property at 801 Chartres Street in a poker game, but those who believe he still resides in New Orleans say he hasn’t left the Big Easy or his favourite, um, haunt. Muriel’s is in a mansion that Antoine, during his terrestrial days, restored after a 1788 fire.
“When stuff happens, we think it’s his way of communicating with us,” general manager Anthony Palomo says. “We think he’s a happy ghost and we think he’s happy that we’re taking care of his beloved mansion.”
Palomo informs that Cabernet Sauvignon is put out each night for a reason. “It seems to be the wine he prefers,” he says earnestly, with a straight face. “We tried other wines, but with Cabernet we notice that the level in the bottle does fluctuate.”
Denise Gratia, the marketing director at Muriel’s, says diners have asked to be seated at the table with Antoine, but there haven’t been any reports of commotion over dinner. Soon, Muriel’s may be offering “Dinner with the Ghost” as a regular feature, Gratia says.
Along with the unexplained glass throwing and the apparent evaporation of wine, other incidents include managers hearing footsteps in the early morning in the locked and otherwise vacant restaurant. Gratia recalls a fire alarm going off at 2 a.m. during Hurricane Katrina.
“There was no one in here. When the managers arrived, the alarm was blaring and we don’t know how it could have went off,” she recalls.
Not long ago, Dubaz says, there was a report of a woman stumbling away from a table during lunch. She claimed she had been pushed but no one was behind her. When someone checked the sturdiness of her chair, a wallet with $2,000 in it was found beneath the table. A previous guest had lost it and the story goes that Antoine helped to recover the cash.
“He likes to find things. He’s a helpful spirit,” Dubaz says of Antoine. The tour guide also notes that more than one ghost may haunt Muriel’s. “Things like the throwing of the glass and other disturbances, those to me indicate that there might be one or two other spirits in there. It’s not characteristic of a ghost like Antoine.”
Paranormal investigators have suggested those ghosts are patrons who died during fights when the property was a tavern in the 1800s.
Muriel’s, a fine-dining establishment that opened in 2001, isn’t shy about the property’s history. Its website details the ghost stories related to it. Upstairs, it has a séance lounge that features faux pharaoh’s tombs, red velvet drapes and couches, and a ouija board that can be brought out on request.
Ghost or no ghost, Muriel’s is a place that knows how to have fun — like so many other venues and people in New Orleans. It’s no wonder someone might want to stay here for eternity.