Reveillon Dinners: Awakening the Holiday Spirit One Feast at a Time
Every Reveillon dinner is a feast to reawaken the senses and celebrate the joys of the season
It’s hard to picture a city that takes culinary tradition more seriously than New Orleans, where old Creole dining customs and iconic dishes contribute so much to the distinctive local cuisine. But even here traditions are open to change and evolve.
One delicious example is the reveillon dinner, the reincarnation of an old Creole holiday custom updated for modern tastes and lifestyles. What began as a family tradition enjoyed in the home is now an extravaganza of good food and festive spirits available for anyone to partake at fifty-two local restaurants.
The History of Reveillon Dinners
Derived from the French word for ‘awakening,’ reveillon originally was a meal served after midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Early New Orleans was almost entirely Catholic, and virtually the entire community would participate in these ceremonies. Families would return from the late-night service famished and set upon a feast prepared in advance and laid out on the table or sideboard. A typical early reveillon menu looked very much like breakfast, with egg dishes, breads and puddings, but could also include turtle soup, oysters and grillades of veal. Naturally, the Creoles accompanied these rich repasts with wines, cordials and other fortified drinks. The dinners could last for many hours, and by some accounts even until dawn.
Through the 19th century, American holiday conventions like Christmas trees, gifts for children and shopping frenzies began gradually to establish themselves in New Orleans and supplant many of the Creole traditions. By the turn of the century, reveillon dinners could be found only in traditional homes, and by the 1940s the custom was all but extinct.
Reawakening the Reveillon
In the 1990s, however, the reveillon tradition was ‘reawakened’ and transformed. The organization French Quarter Festivals Inc., interested in attracting travelers to New Orleans during the perennial holiday season lull in convention bookings, approached local restaurants with an idea to offer and promote special holiday menus. Restaurants eagerly embraced the idea and soon so did their local regulars and out of town visitors.
Modern Reveillon Dinners
The restaurants offering reveillon menus this season run the gamut from old line Creole to the most contemporary and modern. Tujague’s Restaurant (823 Decatur St., 504-525-8676), established in 1856, sets out a reveillon of its traditional specialties – including crawfish and goat cheese crepes with a Chardonnay Creole Cream, pan-sautéed puppy drum topped with Louisiana jumbo lump crab and beurre blanc, and white chocolate bread pudding with Bourbon caramel sauce. While at Vacherie Restaurant (827 1/2 Toulouse St., 504-207-4532), located in the Hotel St. Marie, the four-course feast can start with seafood gumbo and end with Louisiana pecan pie.
Other reveillon menus are accentuated by dining rooms that seem to invoke holiday tradition at this time of year. The old world ambiance of the Bombay Club (830 Conti St., 504-586-0972), in the Prince Conti Hotel, with its dark wood wainscoting, walls lined with bookshelves and thickly-padded furniture fits perfectly with a reveillon menu that includes such choices as pear and roasted fennel salad, salmon with cranberry rice, sweet potato and chorizo bisque and sticky toffee cake.
Some New Orleanians look upon reveillon dinners as an opportunity to sample restaurants they may not often visit, while another appeal of these dinners is the remarkable bargain many of them offer. The menus are prix fixe and give diners four or more courses at some of the city’s finest restaurant for prices that would not be possible if ordering a la carte from their regular menus. For instance, a four-course meal at the Rib Room (621 St. Louis St., 504-529-7045) is $55. Next door to Place d’Armes Hotel, at Muriel’s Jackson Square (801 Chartres St., 504-568-1885), a meal that could include fried oyster chowder, daube glacé, wood grilled veal chop and vanilla bean crème brûlée $48. Perhaps the best bargain of the season, however, is at the Gumbo Shop (630 St. Peter St., 504-525-1486), where a procession of house specialties is $34, ending with the festive options of triple chocolate cake, bread pudding, and pecan pie.
While couples or travelers visiting New Orleans solo can have memorable reveillon dinner experiences, the tradition is best enjoyed with a group of family or friends gathered around a large table or taking over one of those small private dining rooms found in many old French Quarter restaurants. The format of the reveillon dinner may be different from the early Creole days, but the resultant feelings of togetherness and holiday cheer is much the same.
For a complete list of this year’s reveillon dinners, including menus and dates on which the meals will be available, visit holiday.neworleansonline.com.
Ian McNulty is a freelance food writer, columnist, and editor of the guidebook “Hungry? Thirsty? New Orleans.”