The Bistro at the Maison de Ville survived Hurricane Katrina, a change in ownership, the economic recession, a 4-alarm fire at a neighboring building that caused more than $100,000 in damages and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill that wreaked financial havoc in restaurants from Grand Isle to New Orleans.
Throughout it all, the 25-year-old contemporary Creole restaurant on Toulouse Street has thrived, earning critical acclaim and a devoted following while serving as a proving ground for culinary artists such as Susan Spicer, John Neal and current chef Greg Picolo.
But a quarter century of success and survival proved worthless when faced with the one thing the restaurant could not overcome -- the loss of its air conditioning.
The Bistro was forced to close Aug. 22 when Richard Poe, a recent transplant from El Paso, Texas, ripped out the AC units and, as of Thursday, refused to replace them.
"It's almost surreal," said Picolo, who has served as the Bistro's chef for 18 years and now finds himself unemployed. "Restaurants open and close all the time but it's not like we're some ramshackle place that didn't have a strong presence in the culinary community. I've put all my energy and creativity into this so it's very hard to see it end like this."
Owner Michael Maimone, a corporate attorney from New York and part-time New Orleans resident who purchased the restaurant in 2007, struggled to contain his contempt for Poe.
"I've been a mergers and acquisitions lawyer for 20 years. I've represented people you read about in the Wall Street Journal and I've never met someone like this," Maimone said. "In my opinion he wants everyone to know he's in charge. But I didn't bow down to his great wealth and he didn't like that."
Poe, who owns Dos Lunas Tequila along with auto dealerships, cemeteries and insurance companies throughout the South, purchased the Maison de Ville Hotel, at 727 Toulouse St. on Oct. 29, 2010, with the intention of turning it into office space.
As part of the purchase, he took over the lease of the Bistro, which the hotel opened in 1986 in an adjacent building at 733 Toulouse St.
Poe and his attorney, Deborah Harkins with McGlinchey Stafford, refused interview requests."We don't want to litigate this in the press," Harkins said.
Air conditioning placementFor the past 25 years, the Bistro and the hotel have shared an alley separating the two buildings, and during that time the air conditioning units for both properties have been located on the hotel's side of the alley.
Poe decided he didn't like the arrangement, Maimone said, and demanded that either the Bistro or the owner of 733 Toulouse St., Mon-Tay Enterprises, which includes the Monaghan family, owners of Molly's at the Market, pay to relocate the restaurant's air conditioning.
Maimone's lease requires only that he maintain, repair and replace the air conditioning units if needed. It doesn't say anything about relocating perfectly functioning units from an alleyway the hotel and restaurant are required to share, Maimone said.
Mon-Tay Enterprises also concluded that it had no obligation to relocate units that were originally installed by the previous owners of the hotel, according to a Sept. 9 lawsuit filed by Maimone.
Neither position sat well with Poe who, on Aug. 19, gave the Bistro an ultimatum: relocate the units or he would tear them out in three days, according to the lawsuit.
Maimone said he explained to Poe that removing the air conditioning would force the restaurant to close and put eight people out of work. These included Picolo, sous chef Obie Chisholm, who has worked at the Bistro for 14 years, and maitre d' Joe Plavetsky, who left his 30-year position at the Rib Room one year ago to work at the Bistro.
"I flew down from New York on the morning of Aug. 22, landed at 8:30 a.m., jumped in a cab and dropped my bags off at my house. I was here before 10 a.m. and (the AC units) were already gone," Maimone said.
Food credit standoffThe relationship between the men started cordially, said Maimone, who supported Poe's purchase of the hotel. But it turned sour the day after Poe closed on the property when he demanded $1,000 of free food every month.
When Maimone purchased the restaurant in 2007, he agreed to give the hotel's previous owner, Judah Hertz, a $1,000 food credit as part of the purchase agreement. The bonus was designated specifically for Hertz and was not applicable to future owners, he said. Poe and Maimone talked dozens of times before the purchase of the hotel and at no point did Poe ever suggest the food credit should transfer in the new ownership arrangement, Maimone said.
"I wanted to work something out so I said, 'If you give me a lease extension I'll give you the food credit.' He said, 'No,'" Maimone said. "I said, 'Give me a fair distribution of the utilities as is called for in the lease.' He said, 'No. I want my food credit.'"
To keep the peace, Maimone said he offered Poe a $500 credit but Poe said it wasn't good enough.And that's when things took an ugly turn. In November, Poe claimed his girlfriend contracted food poisoning after eating at the Bistro. A month later Poe claimed he, too, was poisoned, demanding payment for his hospital bills.
Maimone, who said the Bistro has never had a health violation or complaint, told Poe to send his hospital records to the Bistro's insurance company. Poe never pursued the issue.
Several months later, Poe demanded Maimone relocate the air conditioning units
"This is all about a food credit," Maimone said.
Moving forwardSome have questioned why Maimone doesn't simply reinstall the units himself, but he says it's cost prohibitive. A new central AC system will cost tens of thousands of dollars and, to make matters worse, Poe refuses to say what he did with the old units.
The Bistro has now been closed for more than a month with no resolution in sight. Meanwhile, Maimone said Poe has conveyed that he is constructing a catwalk in the alleyway that will be large enough to hold his units but too small to hold the Bistro's units as well.
Maimone will go before the Civil District Court on Oct. 21 seeking a preliminary injunction to prevent Poe from evicting him and ordering Poe to reinstall the air conditioning units.
"None of this was necessary," Maimone said. "He could have left everything alone. But even if he didn't want to, why couldn't they just work with us to get this done in a way that's not disruptive to the Bistro? Poe's position has been if we didn't pay to relocate the units he would tear them out. But if he has the right to tear them out, doesn't that show his ownership of the property and his responsibility to relocate them?
"It's tragic. He just came in here and put people who have worked here for decades, who are like my family, out of work."