The Twentieth Century In Dining
It’s fortunate that there’s no millennial aspect to the restaurant business, or else you’d have to slog through more history than you would be interested in. But dining out was in full flower in New Orleans as the 1900s opened. Many of the restaurants that were there then are still around now. And some of the ones that aren’t are still remembered by enough people to give a dining history of the century some meaning.
The last time the double zeros came up, the restaurants dominating the city were decidedly Creole in flavor and French in name and accent. The local cuisine was already well enough established that books had been written about it. Travelers were already making a point to come here for no other reason than to eat well.
In 1900 there was almost no outside ethnic influence on restaurant dining. French and Spanish food were considered native to this area, and although nobody admitted it the rest of the local style came from Africa by way of Haiti. The Italians were still a disdained minority whose food was not accepted outside of Italian homes unless it bore a French name. There was a bit of German cooking. But that was it.
Antoine’s was already 60 years into its career, and generally followed the lead of America’s first true restaurant–Delmonico of New York City, whose success spawned imitators throughout the country. Antoine’s didn’t have to refer to French chefs to inspire its food–the French presence was already here. La Louisiane, Commander’s Palace, and our own Delmonico (which had a tenuous connection with the original) were the leading exponents of the more formal style of dining out, along with a restaurant in the first block of Royal Street called the Gem. The last is now pretty much forgotten, but apparently it was a major force back then.
Also part of this scene was a place called Victor’s, where a guy named Jean Galatoire worked. He soon took over the place and evolved it into the restaurant that still bears his name. The Galatoire’s and Antoine’s of today best illustrate what formal dining in New Orleans was like when the century turned.
There was also casual dining, of course. Tujague’s–inspired by the work of New Orleans’ first chef superstar, Madame Begue–served people who worked in the French Market with simple Creole food. Maylie’s performed the same function in the building now occupied by Smith and Wollensky, the trade coming from the Poydras Market in the neutral ground. And out in the resort of West End, Bruning’s had already established the fired seafood platter as a local standard.
The first culinary revolution of the 1900s took place as soon as the disruptions of World War I ended. Arnaud Cazenave, a French wine salesman, opened a restaurant that went what everybody else was doing one better. So people would only accept culture if it had a French ring? Fine. The proprietor became Count Arnaud, and his menu was riddled with the names (if not always the realities) of the French haute cuisine of the time. Arnaud’s quickly became the leading restaurant of the city, and its dishes and celebratory style became as imitated as Antoine’s was in the pre-war era.
Other restaurants came along to duplicate the Arnaud style, but the one that took Arnaud’s idea to the next level was Brennan’s in 1945. Indeed, Owen Brennan (the father of the present owners of Brennan’s) was moved him to open the place by a challenge from Count Arnaud to the effect that no Irishman could ever operate a French restaurant. If Orleanians thought Arnaud’s was fun, they were about to become ecstatic over the much less formal dining scene that Owen Brennan and his brothers and sisters would provide.
It wasn’t just fun, though. The Brennans instituted new standards of quality in their use of raw materials, as well as getting Orleanians off their exclusive drinking of cheap French wines in favor of California and other vintages. They helped make New Orleans one of the greatest cities in the world for gourmets through the late 1940s and 1950s, when what we offered rivaled that of New York and Paris for excitement. And that wasn’t just New Orleans boosters saying that: editors had to tell many a writer to not write another New Orleans article, so appealing was the eating environment here.
The next major development came in the mid-1960s, when Chef Warren LeRuth opened the first successful chef-owned restaurant here. It was widely hailed as the best restaurant in town through the 1970s, and only the retirement of the chef took it down from that peg. LeRuth’s established the pattern for succeeding waves of dominant chefs in the 1980s and 1990s, as first Paul Prudhomme at K-Pauls’ and then Emeril Lagasse at Emeril’s set the pace for their respective decades.
These are just the highlights of a very good 100 years that end with a restaurant community at an all-time high. At no other time have we had so many great restaurants serving so much good food. And the trend still points up.
Okay, here’s my list. I picked the most influential restaurants instead of the best because a) I can’t know how good restaurants that closed before I was old enough to dine in them were, and b) there are so many great restaurants in highly individual offshoots of restaurant evolution. These places spawned many other great restaurants, and continue to inspire today.
I suppose a place should be found for Antoine’s on this list, but I’m ducking that controversy by noting that they were and are a 19th-century restaurant.
1. Galatoire’s. Everybody compares everything to it.
2. Arnaud’s. Created style in dining. Also, in its latter-day version, demonstrated the right way to renovate.
3. Commander’s Palace. Redefined all the standards in the 1980s, and spun off more great restaurants and chefs than all other restaurants combined.
4. Brennan’s. Part One of above.
5. LeRuth’s. The first great chef-owned restaurant here.
6. Emeril’s. The most imitated culinary style of our times.
7. K-Paul’s. Brought lustiness into the vernacular, and inspired dozens of great chefs.
8. Pascal’s Manale. The first great Italian restaurant here, and the first to combine Creole and Italian.
9. Trey Yuen. Our first really great Asian restaurant.
10. Crescent City Steak House. They created the prime-steak-in-bubbling butter thing–and indirectly made New Orleans one of the world’s greatest steak towns.