Flavor and History:
Exploring the "Grande Dames" of Creole Dining
this Page Printer
in New Orleans - and perhaps only at Galatoire's Restaurant (209
Bourbon St., 504-525-2021) - would people greet with apprehension
the news that soon they would no longer need to stand in line on
the sidewalk to secure a table for dinner.
to Bottom: Galatoire's, Antoine's & Brennan's Restaurants
Eliminating that line was one upshot of the
Creole restaurant's renovations, completed in 1999, which created
a second-floor barroom for patrons waiting to be seated in a
dining room with a strict first-come, first-seated policy. In
the end, most of Galatoire's regulars embraced this and other
conveniences brought on by the renovation, but such is the reverence
New Orleanians have for their city's famous old-line restaurants
that any change to tradition - even one involving standing and
waiting in the outdoor heat - is regarded with suspicion.
Not merely old, historic restaurants, Galatoire's
and the other Creole "grande dames" of the New Orleans
dining scene are deeply entwined in both the city's social history
and the traditions of many local families. The chefs and proprietors
of these restaurants have made indelible contributions to the
local culinary culture, and in the process engendered an almost
uncanny loyalty among patrons and intrigue for new visitors.
Part of what makes these grande dames so compelling
is how their cooking and service style so often serves as a boldface
refutation of modern restaurant trends practiced fervently elsewhere.
While many chefs and restaurateurs strive to discover the "next
big thing," these restaurants have grown famous for changing
as little as possible over the course of generations.
The epitome of that proud status quo is on
display at Antoine's Restaurant (713 St. Louis
St., 504-581-4422). Founded in 1840 by the Alciatore family,
Antoine's is not only the oldest restaurant in New Orleans but
also the oldest in America under continuous operation. Formal
and elegant, the restaurant is composed of a series of evocatively-named
dining rooms (the "Mystery," "Japanese" and "Proteus" rooms
among them), all connected by an almost labyrinthine system of
corridors. The restaurant's ground level wine "cellar," visible
through a small, barred window on the 500-block of Royal Street,
seems to stretch on endlessly.
Antoine's sprawling menu, written in French,
could be a textbook for old-fashioned Creole cooking, featuring
dishes like pompano en papillote - a superior local fish cooked
in parchment with wine sauce - and grand desserts like baked
Alaska. Among the more famous inventions of Antoine's kitchen
is oysters Rockefeller, which with its rich, green sauce was
named for the American tycoon.
A Real "Stand
If Antoine's extensive, French-language menu reflects its long
history of serving Creole high society, Tujague's (823
Decatur St., 504-525-8676) origins as a lunch and dinner room
for merchants and laborers of the French Market and riverfront
show up just as clearly in its own menu. In fact, there is no
printed menu here, but rather a prix fixe selection of five courses
recited by the waiter. There is a choice of four entrees, but
otherwise everyone in the restaurant eats the same thing - the
same communal dining style common in 19th century eateries. Shrimp
remoulade is a mainstay, as is a very flavorful boiled beef brisket.
And after courses of garlic-laden chicken bonne femme and boozy
bread pudding, coffee with chicory arrives served in short glasses.
Founded by French immigrants in 1856, Tujague's
is New Orleans' second oldest restaurant (only Antoine's is older)
and its ambiance appears virtually unchanged from those antebellum
roots. An elegantly simple saloon runs adjacent to the dining
room, where generations of locals and visitors have sipped cocktails
and quaffed beers. There are no stools at the bar, which perhaps
helps concentrate patrons' attentions on the ancient French mirror
stretching virtually the length of the long room.
The Lunch Rush
Mirrors also figure prominently in the ambiance of Galatoire's.
While the renovations mentioned above opened new seating areas
on the second floor, locals know the real action is just inside
the restaurant's front door in a bustling, brightly-lit dining
room lined with mirrors - all the better to scope out the who's
who scene of New Orleans dining. Regulars jam the room for
celebratory lunches that can last for many hours, as plates
of crabmeat maison, green salad with garlic, trout meuniere
and shrimp Marguery are washed down by round after round of
mid-day cocktails and wine.
Galatoire's isn't the only place where regulars
convene almost religiously. Just around the corner at Arnaud's (813
Bienville St., 504-239-8892), some more well-to-do patrons actually
sponsored tables to help finance a multi-million dollar renovation
undertaken at the sprawling establishment in the early 1980s.
In exchange for $10,000, a plaque was set above a particular
table marking it as that customer's own, while a $12,000 open
tab was credited for him or her to return the investment with
All it takes is a reservation to get a regular
table for a meal here today, though the classic ambiance of the
tin-ceiling, tile-floor main dining room and expansive lists of
wine, cigars and liquors would make anyone feel like a high roller.
The restaurant was founded in 1910 by Arnaud Cazenave, a colorful
French wine salesman who later came to be known as Count Arnaud,
though the regal title was self-applied. Arnaud's grew quickly,
absorbing adjacent buildings and cottages to form a contiguous
palace for dining that includes 12 private rooms on the second
floor alone, as well as its own small Mardi Gras museum. The menu
features the Creole classics with some updated recipes, and a
jazz band performs in the front dining room in the evenings.
Creole cuisine, at its heart, involves the classic cooking traditions
of the French, deeply modified by the natural abundances and different
cultural influences encountered in their former colony, New Orleans.
At Broussard's Restaurant (819 Conti St., 504-581-3866),
that Old World/New World dichotomy is reflected even in the surroundings.
Formal dining rooms set in a 19th-century mansion hark back to
the opulence of imperial France, while the restaurant's cobblestone
courtyard with flowering trees and babbling fountain offers a
textbox vignette of the city's lush subtropical splendor. Meanwhile,
the menu mixes old with new as roasted rack of lamb and bouillabaisse
share the stage with dishes like sugar crusted ahi tuna.
The youngest of New Orleans stalwart restaurants is also perhaps
its best known. Owen Edward Brennan, the son of a foundry laborer
from New Orleans' Irish Channel neighborhood, was already an
accomplished bar owner when, in 1946, he opened a French restaurant
on Bourbon Street bearing his family name. Brennan's
Restaurant (417 Royal St., 504-525-9711) moved to
its present location in 1956, occupying a grand old Vieux Carre
building that dates back to 1795 and once housed the first
bank to be chartered in New Orleans.
Almost from the start, the original proprietor
set out to make breakfast the signature meal at Brennan's, and
indeed the restaurant has long been famous for its decadent morning
repasts (which can and do last long into the afternoon). The
meal traditionally starts with cocktails, moves through a selection
of appetizers and classic egg dishes and wraps up with dessert,
often Brennan's own Bananas Foster. And while breakfast "eye-opener" cocktails
may be the traditional way to greet the morning at Brennan's,
during dinner the restaurant's wine list takes center stage.
A truly staggering volume at 56 pages, the wine list runs to
Ian McNulty is a freelance food writer and
columnist, a frequent commentator on the New Orleans entertainment
talk show “Steppin’ Out” and editor of the
guidebook “Hungry? Thirsty? New Orleans.”