New Orleans: Meet Sean McCusker, The Man Behind Sylvain
An ex-New Yorker runs a French Quarter hangout
It's a balmy May evening in the Bywater of New Orleans. I'm in wine shop-cum-raucous-supper-club Bacchanal's back yard with Sean McCusker — restaurant owner, writer, OCD creator of ambience, trouble maker. A joint is going around the table, and after a few glasses of bubbly and a bottle of Tavel rosé, everyone is drunk enough to disregard manners, and conspicuous enough to get caught. But no one says anything. Brett Anderson, the Times-Picayune's food critic stops by the table just as Chris Hannah, head bartender of French 75, arrives with another bottle of wine. It seems everyone knows Sean and drops by to say hello. It's Jazz Fest, one of the busiest weekends of the year in New Orleans, and he's snuck off from his ferociously popular French Quarter restaurant to drink bottles of rosé with me. We get up to dance.
The first time I met Sean, it was concerning Ron Jeremy. I was in New Orleans writing a story about the notorious porn star and sought a chill locale at which to interview him. Sean's then-nascent restaurant Sylvain seemed like the perfect place to hunker down with the Hedgehog and listen to stories of banging chicks interspersed with sweetly rehearsed harmonica serenades. Sylvain is a refuge in the French Quarter — a gracefully tarnished and tattered saloon where on any given night Adrien Brody, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jamie Foxx might be faces in the crowd. The night I dropped in during Jazz Fest all three were present — a testament to the bewitching oasis Sean and his business partner Robert LeBlanc have created. Ron Jeremy loved the place and ate every last morsel of beet toast off my plate by the end of our interview.
Thanks to Mr. Jeremy, Sean and I became fast friends. The second time I dropped in to see him, it was concerning rent money. My then-future roommate, a very mischievous bar proprietor, had left the deposit for our New York apartment in Sylvain's safe. No matter that our apartment was in New York. My rent was in New Orleans. In Sylvain's office. Sean handed over the money and mixed me a Bloody Mary. Once you know him, it only seems fitting you'd become acquainted over these sorts of situations.
Back at Sylvain, it's after 1 a.m. The staff has closed up and Chris Hannah is drinking crème de menthe on the rocks while a couple of my friends down whiskey. At 42, Sean is incredibly impish. His dark eyes shine with the possibility of roguery. He wears the shit-eating grin of a kid who just stuck both hands into the cookie jar and doesn't give a damn if he gets caught. "Do you want to meet the ghost?" he asks, customary smirk in place. It's unsurprising that McCusker owns a restaurant residually inhabited by a brothel-owning madam. After all, he comes from a world saturated with the idea of the other, meaning — women. A former marketing manager of men's magazines Complex, Men's Journal and contributor to Playboy and Rolling Stone among others, Sean is working on a story that will document his own vasectomy. He's been once engaged and never married, so he's somewhat of a perpetual bachelor and relishes the freedom he has to obsess over his job. "I think one of the reasons that Sylvain is successful is because Robert and I are both OCD about the place, but with OCD comes anxiety and I have a hard enough time imagining having a pet, much less a child. It's an all-consuming thing." Hence such a grown-up step — the sealing of the vas deferentia and all.
Along with his consciously adult transition, in a sense Sylvain is about to grow up as well. "There seems to be a trend, not only in New Orleans, but everywhere, where established restaurant owners open a burger place or a more lowbrow, simple spot," Sean reflects. "That's not what we want to do. We want to make Sylvain's older, cooler brother. If Sylvain is a guy just out of college with his first apartment, first job, a cute girlfriend and a little money in his pocket, the next place is going to be that guy five years out of college with a really hot girlfriend, better clothes and more money." He and LeBlanc have vowed to keep it in the French Quarter and stay away from white tablecloths. Invariably clad in jeans with some salt and pepper scruff covering his handsome face, it'd be difficult to imagine Sean running a starched and buttoned restaurant.
"Despite working in magazines for 10 years, I pretty much hate pop culture and New Orleans doesn't give a shit about pop culture either. But it still has culture," Sean laughs. The same night Leonardo DiCaprio appeared at Sylvain, a sea of solicitous women in his wake, Sean may have been three-deep at the bar, but he had no interest. "I'm leaving my dear," a text message from that evening read. "When Leo DiCaprio shows up it's time." Like most New Orleans adoptees, he fell in love with the city in the first 10 minutes and has a hankering for good music and food. "The celebrities in New Orleans are the chefs and the trumpet players. Not the Kardashians or some lame band," he likes to say.
Minutes before we begin our bang-up night on the town, I sit on a barstool next to Sean at the restaurant sharing a burger and some Côtes de Rhône. It's clear that, like all American refugees who make a home in the truly un-American Big Easy, Sean has assumed a looser attitude and easier pace. "If you can build something here that's good and that people like, It's more rewarding than chasing whatever the next big thing is." A shaft of fading sunlight falls across the bar, a notable director leers over his table as the room begins to fill up, and a waitress comes by to ask if she can cancel a reservation. Sean nods and turns back to me, "Also, I'm getting old." I chidingly disagree with him, and he grins. "I feel 26, so it's no big deal."
Sylvain, 625 Chartres St., New Orleans, LA, 504-265-8123, sylvainnola.com
More New Orleans on Food Republic: