"As Antoine's goes, so goes the New Orleans restaurant business!" That's clearly an erroneous assertion, but it does spring from a valid perspective. An astonishing number of dishes and service practices that Antoine's made popular can be seen in the the menus of Creole restaurants throughout the city--from traditional to avant-garde, from high to low price. The links involve generations of evolution, making them seem untraceable. But Antoine's remains the backbone of the culinary body in New Orleans, mostly hidden from view but essential. This column has a long-standing tradition of returning to Antoine's for a full review every three years. It works out perfectly that the time has come now. In the coming year, Antoine's will celebrate its 175th year in business. Rick Blount--great-great grandson of Antoine and the restaurant's CEO--has already done more to note this milestone than the restaurant did during its entire 150th year. He dares to say that there will be changes in the restaurant's menu. These will be more about how the food is served than what is served. It says something that has been obvious for a long time: Antoine's was so wrapped up in its past that it missed many opportunities for its future. Many potential customers who don't know the deep background are puzzled or even infuriated by the way the restaurant operates. Rick's advances since Katrina revealed how much change the restaurant can take without upsetting the clientele. The most successful was the institution of a three-course lunch for $20, which invited a lot of new local customers in. Turning one of Antoine's many private dining rooms into a wildly successful bar was also a big hit. The Hermes Lounge now is almost always full with a mix of locals and visitors drinking, listening to live music, and eating appetizers. Contrast that with the previous decades (this is no exaggeration) of controversy as to whether an open bar should be undertaken. The 175th anniversary already has brought forth a new Antoine's cookbook and a scheduled dinner at the James Beard House in New York. The old but incomprehensible Japanese Room on the second floor has become a big dining room in the style of the classic main room. They're relocating the bathrooms and, at the same time, opening a new passageway into the wine cellar, to which customers will be invited to select bottles, and perhaps even to dine. Speaking as a longtime fan of Antoine's, I find all this very agreeable. I don't expect that the best food or service in town will result from the efforts. But I do think that as centers of New Orleans culture go, Antoine's will continue to lead the field.
There simply isn't a restaurant anywhere like Antoine's. With over a thousand seats in a remarkable collection of dining rooms, it has always been the essential restaurant for a lot of New Orleans people. We put up with the maddening quirks and inconsistencies just to be there. This is especially true around the holidays--both the fixed ones on the calendar and our own special days. A thorough restoration, a new bar, and new special menus succeed in attracting people who have not dined there in a long time, or ever. Yet it retains the unique character that endears it to so many people.
Antoine's opened in 1840, not long after the restaurant business began in America. It's the oldest continuously-operating restaurant in America under one continuous management by the same family. It has always been considered more than just a good place to eat, but part of the cultural fabric of New Orleans. Although the Civil War and Prohibition hit Antoine's hard, Hurricane Katrina brought it dangerously close to extinction. In the recovery, management of the restaurant unambiguously moved from the Guste family (which had run it since the 1970s) to Yvonne Blount and her son Rick--fourth- and fifth-generation descendants of founder Antoine Alciatore. Rick Blount orchestrated the redefinition of the restaurant in good ways. Antoine's has never been better.
The restaurant is an agglomeration of several buildings wrapping around the northeast corner of the intersection of Royal and St. Louis Streets. Waiters and outside guides leaders give tours to customers. A thorough stroll around the restaurant takes about ten minutes, what with all the memorabilia. The wine cellar--a long alleyway filled with bottles--is striking. The small, bright front dining room is a charming French-style antique. The main room is more masculine and Germanic, with walls are covered with photos and testimonials.
A diner intent on getting the most from dinner at Antoine's must first recognize that it is different from other restaurants, serving an historic cuisine in an historic way. If that fact means nothing to you, this may not be your kind of restaurant. People who enjoy Antoine's most are regulars with a rapport with the waiters. Knowing a waiter personally is not essential, but is desirable. Becoming a friend of the restaurant is easy: come in for a few of the $20 three-course lunches. If you want baked Alaska (and you do), be sure to order it at the beginning of the meal, with everything else. Do not attempt to dine at Antoine's when the entire place is packed, as on the weeks before Christmas or Mardi Gras.