It's hard for any restaurant to stand out at the head of the
pack in a city filled with outstanding restaurants like New
Orleans, Yet, if
you ask the experts to name some of New Orleans best
restaurants, Antoine's will always be on the list. It's been way
up there for a long time, 175 years of French Creole culinary
traditions to be exact.
It's the oldest family owned continuously
operating restaurant in America. They have been featured on
shows like FoodNation
with Bobby Flay and the Travel Channel and named one of the Top
Ten Restaurants by both Food
Network Magazine and
Southern Living ranks them even better and names them one of
the top five in New Orleans.
When I visited on a recent press trip, we
were greeted by Rick Blount, current CEO and great-great-
grandson of Antoine's founder, Antoine Alciatore. While we were
seated in the Rex Dining Room being pampered by an army of
servers, he told us a little of the history of Antoine's. He
pointed out New Orleans was wealthy and the food traditions
there grew very differently. Cajun cooking was all about home
cooking and doing it in one pot. Creole cooking was about staff
cooked food. It's about sauces and combining different spices
and flavors. The Creoles were mostly French but there was a huge
influence from Spanish, Italian and German. These wealthy
families brought their ideas about cuisine with them. When they
arrived they found an abundance of food but very different kinds
than in Europe. Africans, who did much of the cooking for
wealthy families, also had their own traditions about food. All
of these cultures combined in New Orleans to create the Creole
style of cooking.
Rick's great-great-grandfather, Antoine,
opened a small exclusive
pensione, a European style hotel and restaurant. He had a
large family and he and his wife operated the small facility
profitably. He had
a great influence on this new style of Creole cooking.
Antoine created a great
variety of sauces. As Rick stated, "New Orleans must have been
ready for that because Antoine became successful almost at
Jules, one of Antoine's sons, became the
second generation to operate Antoine's. His mother operated the
restaurant when Antloinie returned to France to die and be
buried in his native county. Jules' mother sent him to
Marseilles and Paris to apprentice to the masters. He returned
and eventually took over operating the restaurant from his
mother. Like his father he was a continentally trained chef. He
was the one who invented Oysters Rockefeller, so named for the
richness of the sauce. Jules married well, a plantation owner's
daughter. He then bought up all the real estate around the
original business. By this time the little
Antoine's were going out of style. Jules didn't like the hotel
part of the business at all. Rick explained, "Jules had a
different vision for Antoine's. He was a very good looking man
and he liked himself a lot. He made Antoine's a celebrity spot.
All the singers, and actors and prizefighters who appeared at
the French Opera House, the Superdome of that time, could be
found at Antoine's."
When the helm passed once again, this time
to Rick's grandfather, Roy Alciatore, Antoine's changed again.
According to Rick, his grandfather was "very different from
Antoine and Jules. Jules was this big personality, a tall
handsome man. Roy was Jules youngest son, short and a geek. His
dream job was to broaden the technology of the time. He thought
the Marconi telegraph was the greatest thing ever invented. He
could type in on a keyboard and find out how the grapes were
growing in France six months before he could get a letter back
and forth. So he was at the right place at the right time for
the business. Roy made Antoine's fine. Jules made Antoine's
famous. Roy took
Antoine's sort of Wild West Show and turned it into fine
Rick came to work at Antoine's just after
his grandfather died. The fourth generation running the shop
there were his cousins William Guste, Jr. and Roy Guste. The
staff liked Rick a lot and told him countless stories about his
grandfather. But as he put it, "my cousins didn't like me at
all. They said I was like a ‘bull in a china shop.' I was
politely asked to leave."
Then in 2004, there was a family crisis and
Rick was on the board. As he tells it, "I made some sort of a
smart-alec remark at a board meeting and someone said, ‘Well, if
you know so much about it why aren't you running the
restaurant?' I replied, ‘cause no one ever asked me.' That's how
I got here."
Judging by the food, atmosphere and
service, Rick is doing a fine job of being the fifth generation
at Antoine's. They ran into some tough times when Katrina hit
just a few months after Rick took over but they have come back
stronger than ever.
Meanwhile as we were listening to the
fascinating history we were feasting first on a series of
appetizers. My favorites were Oysters Rockefeller and Pommes de
Terre Souffles, Antoine's Classic fried puff potatoes, another
of their specialties.
Of course we were treated to warm bread and
butter and a tasty salad of mixed greens and tomatoes slices
topped with creamy chicken salad crisscrossed with crispy bacon
For the main course we enjoyed Filet with
Marchand De Vin Sauce, a grilled center cut of beef tenderloin
topped with Antoine's Marchand de Vin sauce and mushrooms.
Then our waiter, Charles Carter, brought in
the pièce de resistance, a gorgeous Baked Alaska. To give you an
idea of staff loyalty, Charles had been with Antoine's for about
17 years. He is a third generation waiter, following in the
footsteps of his great uncle and his dad as well as one of
Charles's brothers. Chef
Michael Regua, who has been at Antoine's 30 years, outdid
himself with our lunch.
Being a fantastic restaurant is enough to
draw visitors but there is more to the story. Antoine's is
almost a museum of his own history. Each dining room has a
story. We dined in the Rex Dining Room. It is filled with
elaborate costumes, crowns, scepters and other memorabilia of
all the past royalty of Rex. Rick told us it was dedicated by
Roy Alciatore in 1942 with the King of Rex as a visiting
Even the architecture is a story. "The room
is a courtyard infill that went between the back of one set of
buildings and the stone horse stalls of another building on
completely different lots. The room is on three different lots.
People those days did things that today we would think were
absolutely ludicrous. But they happened. A lot." Rick explained,
"If you go to get a building permit, what lot do you say you are
on? In those days, if you owned the property, no one cared
whether you built across lot lines."
He told another story about his granfather
deciding after prohibition to build a wine cellar. They went
through a whole bunch of buildings and ended up with a 165 foot
wine cellar as a way to celebrate and say "you can be proud of
booze again." Rick finished the story with the comment, "We
ended up with a window into the wine cellar on Royal Street that
nobody looks into. I thought for sure someone would break into
it but no one pays any attention at all."
Thomas, one of Antoine's bartenders led us
around the old building. We started in the Annex, the first room
to be added after the original dining room. It was originally a
horse stable. It doesn't resemble a stable in any way now. There
are pictures of some of the famous guests ranging from General
Patton and President Roosevelt to Vanna White even Pope John
Paul II. Patton's claim to fame here is he ate 24 Oysters
Rockefeller, sauce and all. Since it is such a problem to move
the Pope around, he asked for Antoine's to cater to the Seminary
Building. This was the first time ever that Antoine's catered
outside the restaurant.
Next we visited my favorite,The Mystery
Room. Between the two rooms, you can see where the two sections
were joined. You pass the famous ashtray collection. Roy would
travel with a bunch of Antoine's ashtrays and trade with other
places. Then people would send ashtrays. It got to be the thing
to have your ashtray on display at Antoine's.
The Mystery Room is entered today through
an archway but during prohibition, it was reached differently.
They entered through the ladies room and down a hall where the
broom closet then opened into another hallway that opened into a
place where a door led to the Mystery Room. Obviously this was
not advertized but as Thomas said, "People in the know, locals
and people who had a regular waiter, knew about it. They would
come in here and get their alcohol in a coffee cup and then the
Maître d' would lead them back to their tables. If anyone asked
where the alcohol came from they would say ‘It's a mystery to
me.' Thus the room got its name"
We visited the Dungeon Room which is the
oldest part of the building and once was a Spanish dungeon back
in the 1760s. Then on to the 1840 Room, designed like a dining
room from a wealthy 19th century home,
which is used by the
Alciatore family for their private dining. The room is filled
with family portraits and special memorabilia. One of the
neatest artifacts here are one of the Edison light bulbs which
was sent to New Orleans shortly after Edison invented them,
Proteus Room is a queen's krewe. The king
of this krewe is always kept secret. Their invitations are the
ultimate indicator that the recipient had been accepted as part
of New Orleans aristocracy.
We went through the Escargot Room used by
an exclusive gourmet club, Societe d'Escargots, which meets here
monthly. There is also the Tabasco Room, done in bright red in
honor of the spicy Louisiana product, and the Hermes Bar, once
used as a dining room but more recently converted to a bar.
we got a tour of the wine cellar. It is not to be missed. I have
never seen another like it. It is actually a wine alley and you
can see the window Rick talked about. Thomas told us, "After
Katrina, the insurance paid between $800,000 to a million and
they were paying at 20 cents on the dollar. It is about half a
football field long and holds about 25,000 bottles of wine.
Since Katrina, they have been trying to build it back up but
some of the wines lost are difficult to replace. Some of the
wines sell for as much as $18,000 a bottle."
Naturally, there are some ghost stories at
Antoine's but I am telling those in the Chuckwagon Roundup
feature of haunted restaurants so
check here. Antoine's is
celebrating their 175th birthday all year so go join
in the party fun soon.
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