The oldest restaurant in North America: since 1840
Arriving at the Wyndham Hotel in the French Quarter at 5 pm, I booked dinner with the concierge at 6. “Antoine’s, please.” “Indeed, madame.” Smiled the young chap still in his school clothes behind the podium in the lobby.
We were only here two evenings, and the following day was completely booked, so this was my one New Orleans restaurant pick. Antoine’s it would be. Established in 1840, it is the oldest restaurant in North America, and certainly, the oldest family run restaurant.
History of Antoine’s Restaurant
Antoine Alciatore, at 18 years old, established this restaurant never expecting it to be under family direction for over 174 years. At first, it was a boarding house with a restaurant. Once his fiancée joined him from New York, and they were married, they built the business together with an emphasis on the food. The restaurant part of the business was so well received that they had to move to a larger space in 1868 where the restaurant is today.
Their son, Jules become head chef at Antoine’s restaurant after studying in Europe in many famous kitchens. He invented Oysters Rockefeller, so named for the richness of the sauce. Jules son, Roy, took the next lead in the restaurant for almost 40 years through the Prohibition era and World War II. Marie Louise, Roy’s daughter, had two sons, William Jr. and Roy Sr., who together became the fourth generation to head the restaurant. Roy’s son, Roy Jr., took th elead until until 1984, then William’s son, Bernard “Randy” Guste managed Antoine’s until 2004. In 2005, Rick Blount, Roy Alciatore’s grandson became proprietor and CEO. Whew. That is a lot of family history and obviously a lot of family passion invested in this business!
Hurricane Katrina was the last catastrophe faced by the restaurant. The labyrinth of halls has walls lined with artifacts, collections and photographs of the rich and famous who have dined here: George Bush, Bill Clinton, Franklin Roosevelt, Pope John Paul II, Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis, Tom Cruise, Kate Hudson, Jimmy Buffet,Whoopi Goldberg, Bob Hope, and Bing Crosby… and the list is much longer.
There are 14 dining rooms in all!
Exhausted from rising at 4am and 12 hours of “getting here” time, mom and I refreshed briefly in the clean and comfortable room before heading out to walk the few blocks to the restaurant.
The French Quarter was alive and pumped blood back into our cheeks and energy through our weary bones. Well, I speak about me. Mom is never weary! “Hello, New Orleans! I have arrived! Let the party begin!”
The French Quarter, and New Orleans has been famous since the 1850’s for the stunning wrought iron and cast iron balconies, galleries and fences. The first architectural features we spied in the French Quarter were these. The locals make a fuss if you get them mixed up. A balcony projects from the wall of a building, as one might expect. A gallery is wider and longer than a balcony, usually overhanging the width of a sidewalk and are supported from the ground with posts or columns. Vanja and I first spied these in Modena and Bologna, Italy. There, they were high enough for horses to run under. Here, they are a welcome refuge from the rain. The green entry way, above and below, is Antoine’s.
Dressed in a tuxedo, standing in the vestibule, above, the host welcomed us into the restaurant, held the door and guided us to a waiter, also dressed in a tuxedo. Oh my. Me and my jeans. Woops! “Me thinks I may under dressed for such a fine establishment, sir.” I blurted. “Absolutely, not, madame. You look stunning.” Not sure I had enough spare change for a tip big enough, at this point, and we weren’t even seated. The main dining room, above, is where we enjoyed our meal.
The room was softly lit, elegant, sparsely occupied, white linens and suffused in the formality I felt we two needed this evening. I sank into my chair. Lovely.
Cocktail, please. Mom ordered a Pimm’s Cup with a gin base. Mom loves gin, and if I had my light bulb plugged in, would have ordered her a gin fizz: a famous New Orleans creation. However, she didn’t want the Sazerac, the most famous New Orleans cocktail created by Antoine at this very restaurant, in the early 1800’s. Originally, he mixed cognac with bitters, but round 1870 Thomas Handy changed the base to rye whisky. Apparently, after a Sazerac, you may not find your way home.
Antoine’s Restaurant is famous for its Turtle Soup. Turtle is not an endangered species in this area. I was really looking forward to a taste. However, they haven’t had this soup on the menu since Hurricane Katrina, our waiter explained. “Why?” No explanation, really. It has just never reappeared since. “However, the Potage Alligator au Sherry” (for 10 dollars – a well-seasoned sherry wine-laced, alligator bisque) is “made in the same style as the turtle soup”. Everyone that loved the turtle soup now orders it, apparently. “Would you like to have a taste?” Seriously? “Yes, please! ” And a small bowl arrived. Certainly, a very, very generous taste. Yet, neither of us cared for it. It was not off putting, but it was not tasty. It was unusual, though I certainly could not taste any alligator; the seasoning was the unusual bit. One taste was enough for each of us. “No, thank you. We’ll share a small gumbo, instead.”
New Orleans Famous French Bread
Ohhhh, the bread. And, the butter. A moment of silence, please.
The recreation of French Loaf in the hands of New Orleans bakers morphed into what is known as the “New Orleans Baguette, the “Po’ boy loaf” and “Sunday Cap Bread”. All three shape creations are identical in flavour and texture with a crust that shatters perfectly and the most pillowy fragrant white bread cuddled within. The baguette is a small loaf, similar to a traditional French baguette in thickness, but about 1/3 to 1/2 as long at 18 inches, called a New Orleans baguette. The Po’ boy loaf, made in the same tradition, are used for the traditional Po’ boy sandwiches, developed as a meal-in-a-sandwich for drivers during the New Orleans street car strike of 1927 and have remained a culinary icon. The Sunday cap bread is traditionally served at special restaurants and during Sunday dinners. It is a 10-12 inch rounder loaf. All three, I have learned, are fundamental to New Orleans gastronomy, though within one day the bread becomes stale and unbreakable. The bread is so unique, so famous, and a culinary rarity after Hurricane Katrina due to the closure of most bakeries producing this very special bread as they were flooded. Thus, Slow Food USA has entered the New Orleans French Bread on the Ark of Taste. The bread and butter experience at Antoine’s Restaurant is unforgettable.
We were told to ask for a restaurant tour, and if you go, you must, as well. At this point, our waiter picked us up and took us for a 15 minute tour. We didn’t get to the upstairs as he said he wasn’t able to take us there on this day. The tour information is after my accounting of our meal.
Antoine’s Famous Oysters Rockerfeller
Jules Alciatore, Antoine’s son, invented Oysters Rockefeller, named for the richness of the sauce. Honestly, it wasn’t very good. I was surprised. I suppose that it was outrageously good in 1889 when it was invented. But, versions I have had that are nothing similar to this authentic version, taste delicious. The main ingredient is bread crumbs with lots of butter then parsley, herbs and seasonings. He created this dish trying to develop something similar to the escargot dishes he was familiar with from his culinary training in France, so I can see how it came to be. When mom and I first sampled the topping, we could not come close to identifying the ingredients or the flavours, and I am usually very good at that. My first sensation and impression was that there must be a mashed root vegetable here. That was the crumbs with butter, apparently. In any case, our dish was very brown, not at all green in colour as I had read, and expected. Spinach is often used in recipes (that are very delicious) to duplicate this recipe and the “vivid green colour” that wasn’t apparent on our plate. However, some people have gone as far as to take theirs to a lab and have discovered that the predominant green is from parsley, and spinach is not in the original recipe, at all. All this said, you cannot come without ordering this dish, no? It is a must.
I wasn’t expecting our own certificate with our order. As you can see, ours was the 4 millionth, 62 thousandth and 794th order of Oyster Rockefeller served here! That is an unusual keepsake!
There was probably too much topping for the oyster, as the bite with the oyster was much more tasty than the topping on its own, yet there is so much topping, that most of it is eaten on its own.
Antoine’s Restaurant is very accommodating.We were splitting the one order, above from their website, and each of us received our own plate, of three. You can see the green colour is not in their own photograph, either.
We were very clear that we would simply share a small bowl of the classic Creole Gumbo. We had big plans for the food, and hate to waste. The staff is so attentive and generous, that we each received our own bowl even though we had made that request. Good thing, too. Mom ate all of hers! It is “a classic preparation of rich Louisiana gumbo with blue crabs, oysters, and gulf shrimp.” This was my very first experience with gumbo. I had no clue what to expect, yet I did know that gumbo has a caramelized roux and is made with the “holy trinity”: onions, bell peppers, and celery. Thus, I expected a deeply flavourful stewy meaty concoction. Nope. Of course, this was a fish gumbo, but the base wasn’t fishy, only the fish inside of it. I did not care for the seasoning. It didn’t taste “good”. I was told they make a “fair gumbo” here, but are not famous for it. However, they are famous for their turtle soup, in “the style of the alligator soup” we tried, that was similar to the gumbo base, to me. So, I am confused and my jury is out on gumbo at the moment. I did not know that gumbo is always served over white rice. I know now. I prefer it without the rice.
Grilled Gulf fish du jour with Louisiana Crawfish tails in a white wine sauce: Antoine’s creation
I had read that this was a main course “not to miss”, then our tour guide said that it was the one she would order. When we asked our waiter for a main, this was also his suggestion. It was outstanding. Of course, I wanted to try Crawfish. Oh, how high that was on my list. And, they did not disappoint. Little lobster-like morsels: a pure delicacy! And the sauce? I wanted to buy it by the bucket. It reads “white wine sauce”, but it was red? No matter. It was deadly delicious. And the fish? Apparently similar to trout, but certainly without the dirty flavour trout is known for, the gulf fish this evening was the Pomfret. It was like butter. Are you getting the “taste picture”? The fish, the sauce and the Crawfish tails each elevated the other component of this dish and it is spectacular. At 36 dollars, it should be. I was surprised it was served on a small pate, too. It wasn’t served on a dinner sized plate. In any case, it was worth the money, the experience and though we did share it, I could have eaten it all!
Pommes de terre soufflées
It was our tour guide that said, “You must order their potato soufflée!” I was shocked to see them. The classic soufflée in a small dish is what my expectation held, yet here was a plate of deep fried “somethin’ somethin’s.” Described as “the classic Antoine’s fried puffed potatoes”, they are brilliant. Mom was smitten, as was I.
Look. Completely hollow appearing, yet there is considerable substance in each bite. How can that be? And the flavour? More delicious than any french fry could even imagine. Apparently, this accidental culinary masterpiece, the soufflé potatoes, are sliced ultra thinly, soaked for 2 days in an ice bath, then deep fried; held for service and fried again, where they magically puff. The story of how these were first created is a great read.
Café brulot diabolique
Who can resist a little drama aside the dinner table. Not me! The devil’s coffee is definitely a production, a once in a lifetime taste experience, and another “must order” when visiting Antoine’s Restaurant. You might not like it. I didn’t, but I loved the experience and the tasting. This is some powerful hooch!
Our waiter’s lovely assistant made an extraordinary presentation with humor, finesse, and just the right amount of banter.
Touted as “Antoine’s creation of hot spiced coffee flamed with bandy”, be prepared to see double if you work your way through a cup. This stuff will have your pants stand up straight before you do. It is a New Orleans staple, and served in a few high end restaurants, but was created by Jules Alciatore, Antoine’s son, and became especially popular during the Prohibition as a means of concealing alcohol. There are cinnamon sticks, coriander, allspice, cloves, lemon, orange, sugar, brandy, coffee and some bitters added to Antoine’s recipe.
The perfume alone, intoxicating. After the preparation spectacle, one is definitely in full anticipation mode.
We both sipped away, not really enjoying the flavours, but absolutely reveling and saturated in the experience.
Omelette Alaska Antoine better known as Baked Alaska
There is enough dessert for 6 or 8 here, truly, but as it is 20 dollars, it is suggested for a minimum of 2 and must be ordered at the front of the meal, immediately upon sitting down. Make sure you do this. All of their desserts are spectacular, old world and probably worth trying, but this is special.
Above, the side of the Baked Alaska reads “Since 1840”, and below it reads “Antoine’s” on the other side.
It is an event when it is served, just as the coffee was. Do you see the gals, above, enjoying this presentation? We had so much left over, we had it delivered to their table. They were very appreciative, but said their Cherries Jubilee was their personal preference.
Again, it was more of a spectacle than delectable. With ice cream this yellow and eggy, I expected a vanilla flavour or a rich cream flavour. Nope. Mediocre. The pound cake was “just pound cake”, but the meringue was outstanding. I could not stop eating it. The waiter forgot to bring the hot chocolate sauce that is to accompany this dessert, and we would have not known, but another gal, a table over, who was just finishing theirs, asked us where our sauce was. They had a huge bowl left on their table. She insisted we ask as “it makes all the difference.” This is one friendly town. Here we are in such formal surroundings, and it was like dining amongst friends.
Mom was delighted.
And the chocolate sauce did breath a new life into the plain pound cake and simply flavoured ice cream. The waiter ladled it over, then took it away. Mistake. Ask to have the sauce left at your table. I wanted more. It was so good.
Neither of us finished the ice berg sized piece we were served, but had fun trying. This was an incredible evening to share with my mom. I loved every single minute of it. Whether the dish was tasty, or not, the experience was spectacular.
I walked back to the hotel after our meal, winding our way through the crowds in the French Quarter, with a memory with my mom that I will cherish forever. Antoine’s is definitely a must for every single person visiting this city. If it is the only place you can go, go. I left without regret. I know I will be back, but this experience was so rich, so complex and simply unforgettable.
The Tour of Antoine’s Restaurant
You can find the dining room histories and names in the restaurant website, but here are a few tidbits from our tour.
Mom examines a photo of the Pope’s visit.
President John F. Kennedy, above.
Photos of famous people, artifacts and collections line the hallway walls.
Setting up for a specific Society Dinner. Oh, there are so many “societies” in the area. Watching the guests arrive for this dinner was hilarious. They looked like they had each shopped at their local second hand shop as each was adorned in vintage shawls, shoes, wraps and dresses from bygone eras. Although, it did become clear that this was not a masquerade party, and that these clothes were seriously authentic garments from the guests own closets.
Apparently Brad and Angelina Jolie live only a few blocks away and this is their private dining room. They call, come in the back and enjoy their food here.
Very proud of their wine cellar, as it has a 25 000 bottle capacity measuring 165 feet long and 7 feet wide.
Our waiter points out Groucho Marx’s beret, above.
The prohibition room, above, and below, as you look up, it is apparent that there are balconies that used to be on the street, and are now enclosed into the building.
Secret doors for storage, and escape during prohibition times are still apparent.
Back through a bar, opened a door, found the stairs that lead to the remaining dining rooms, another door opened, and – voilà….
Back to the main dining room, our table waiting above, second from the back, on the left. In awe of those who had come before, who still come regularly, and who are yet to come, we returned to our seats, feeling regal, fortunate, blessed, and very hungry for the incredible meal we were about to partake of together in the oldest restaurant in North America. “I will be back!”