An Upcoming River North Bar Draws Inspiration From New Orleans’s Defunct Red Light District

Storyville, a new restaurant with a basement speakeasy-style lounge, named for New Orleans’s red light district — and where many jazz musicians got their starts in the late 1890s and early 1900s by playing in whorehouses — should open later this month in River North. Storyville will feature live jazz and a menu of classic New Orleans comfort food like a 100-year-old family jambalaya recipe, gumbo, and po’ boys.

Co-owner Dino Vulpitta (King of Cups in Lincoln Park and Esmeralda’s Lounge in Humboldt Park) says he was inspired by his own longtime love for New Orleans and jazz. The venue is planned to open on August 26 at 712 N. Clark Street in the former home of Woodhaven Bar & Kitchen. Co-owners Vince Lujan and Dustin Berk brought over former Sunda chef Louie Yu (he’s also working on another River North project for Lujan and Berk, the ski resort-inspired Chalet).

Yu’s assisted by by Robert Brasseaux, a native of Lafayette, Louisiana, who previously ran his own virtual restaurant, Brasseaux’s Cajun Kitchen. Brasseaux was originally hired on as a consultant, but the owners were so impressed with his knowledge — and also his jambalaya recipe, inherited from a great-uncle — that they offered him a position as Storyville’s general manager. Brasseaux, in turn, imported a staff of cooks from New Orleans.

“In New Orleans, everyone has their own family recipe,” Brasseaux says. “Louie wanted to add his own flair. That’s what everyone does down there. [The jambalaya at] Antoine’s is different from Chez Paul. Everyone has their own recipe, but they’re still all true to New Orleans.”

Vulpitta came up with the concept of Storyville and Lujan, a New Orleans native, was hooked. After that, Vulpitta says, all the pieces fell into place.

In addition to the jambalaya, the kitchen will serve a gumbo made from shrimp, crawfish, and andouille sausage in a dark roux base. Other items include catfish nuggets, shrimp and Italian po’ boys, fried okra, and what Brasseaux describes as “a really awesome muffuletta.”

gumbo, jambalaya, and a glass of wine

A few of the offerings from Storyville’s kitchen
Storyville [Official Photo]

The restaurant will have three separate dining areas: a speakeasy-style basement lounge with decor inspired by the fin de siecle heyday of the original Storyville; a patio with traditional New Orleans metalwork; and a main dining room that Vulpitta describes as having “a more rustic kind of New Orleans feel,” with Empire chandeliers, TV monitors that rotate through photos of classic New Orleans scenes, and art installations inspired by historical figures like Louis Armstrong, the Olympia Brass Band, and Josie Arlington and Lulu White, two of Storyville’s best-known madams. The dining room will seat 60, while the basement and patio will sit about 40 people each.

“[New Orleans] was the birthplace of the hospitality industry,” Vulpitta says. “That’s what brought me to this project: the story of people who struggled, who served great food and drink and entertainment. This isn’t a New Orleans bar where it’s like, here’s your Mardi Gras beads. People aren’t traveling as much these days. This is a chance to get a taste of an authentic experience.”

This is all, of course, a highly romanticized vision of the original Storyville, a red velvet upholstering over poverty, racism, and stigmatization of sex workers that led to the district’s establishment in the first place: “The people of Storyville made lemonade out of lemons,” says Vulpitta. “People in bad situations made unbelievably beautiful things.”

The restaurant will be more of a tribute to what came out of the neighborhood than an exploration of its dark side. The only jazz funerals at Storyville will be theatrical re-creations, and it probably goes without saying that there will be no brothel upstairs.

Storyville, 712 N. Clark Street, planned to open on August 26.