New Orleans's stock of century-old restaurants barely escaped a major loss last year. Tujague's the second-oldest restaurant here, came close to a shuttering in a real-estate slippage. The fans of Tujague's--many of whom hadn't dined there in decades--rallied around the restaurant. The closing was averted at the last minute, and the whole story was reported widely. Part of it was the passing away of longtime owner Steven Latter, whose son Mark stepped in boldly. For those of us actually interested in dining at Tujague's, that's where the story really begins. Mark made many changes in the restaurant. We didn't know how much they were needed until they were done. The redecorating of the dining room and the quadrupling of the menu constitutes a great advance. Tujague's future now seems assured.
For those of us in love for local institutions, New Orleans without Tujague's is unimaginable. As a result of having to imagine just that last year, a long-overdue reinvention brought more changes in a few months than in the previous 100 years. Yet, if you want it to be, dinner at Tujague's remains a lot like whatever you might remember. At the same time, the new menu makes it much friendlier to those who don't know its long, quirky story.
Tujague's story reveals much about New Orleans life and business during its long tenure. Opened in 1856 as a day's-end communal eating house for workmen on the docks and in the French Market, it became the first New Orleans restaurant to get a boost from being in a restaurant row. Madame Begue's--our city's first celebrity chef--worked next door. Tujague's later took over the Begue's space and kept on serving fixed-price, family-style dinners for another hundred years. By the time Steven Latter took over in 1976, that dining format was impossibly antiquated. But he kept it for the sake of historical accuracy. It wasn't until the events of 2013 that the modernization brought the place up to about 1985. Which is a good place.
Unlike the other grand old restaurants of the 1800s, Tujague's is not and never has been fancy. Even its recent restoration left it looking more like an antique corner hangout than a venerable dining parlor. The redecoration brightened the room and added mirrors, adding dimension. Tiled floors, a high ceiling with church-style fixtures, and small display cabinets filled with thousands of small bottles of liqueurs complete the picture. The bar is a marvelous antique, much liked by French Quarter residents for their after-hours tipple.
Call for a reservation and specify that you'd like the chicken bonne femme, if you do. The fresh turkey dinners on Thanksgiving and Christmas are excellent.