Illustration by Adam Waito

New Orleans Freaked Out About Changes to This 110-Year-Old Restaurant

Established in 1905, Galatoire's is the best place in New Orleans for old-world French-Creole cuisine. But that honor comes with the burden that it's not allowed to change.

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Jul 10 2016, 4:00pm

Illustration by Adam Waito

Back in February, Galatoire's—the premier French-Creole restaurant in the city dating back to 1905—ran out of crab, and the city was up in arms. It seemed funny that a restaurant's seafood woes should make newspaper headlines, even if their menu focuses largely on crabmeat. But for those who lived here all their lives, it was a sign that one of the city's oldest culinary institutions was changing, and when it comes to old traditions, people hate change—even, as in the case of the crab shortage, they're a result of environmental factors rather than the restaurant's fault.

In my two years living in this food-obsessed city and writing about its epicurean culture, I'd somehow never been to Galatoire's until recently. It was too much of a financial reach for a freelancer in a city with an perpetually growing number of interesting and accessible culinary locations to explore. But then a pal turned 30, and her one request was to go to Galatoire's. You don't say no to 30.

Though it's not the most affordable way to get an education in New Orleans restaurant culture, understanding this institution in the heart of the French Quarter might be the best way. And I was growing increasingly aware of my own naiveté.

As famous as it is, Galatoire's is still very much a place for locals whose families have been eating there for generations. It's the kind of restaurant where longstanding personal relationships between waiters and patrons are an important aspect of the dining experience. Drinks are stiff, sauces rich. Servings are large and food is stacked in a way that's more appealing to the stomach than the eye. The food meant for the sake of eating—not Instramming—unchanged since the days before chefs became celebrities and plating was considered an art form.

But, in some ways, Galatoire's suffers the burden of its patrons' expectations. Established at the turn of the 20th century by French immigrant Jean Galatoire, it's the premier fine-dining establishment for old-world French-Creole cuisine. But that honor also comes with the burden that Galatoire's is not allowed to change. While more modern restaurants can adjust to the market, season, and current taste of diners, when you've been around for a century and invoke a great sense of nostalgia, any change is bad. And over the past 25-plus years, Galatoire's has gone through a number of changes, many of which were met with controversy.

The latest controversy was the crab shortage, which somehow lasted for a few months (and also affected other restaurants). For people who have been going there their whole lives, it was damn near blasphemous. To the layman, running out of crabmeat doesn't seem like a big deal, especially if it's getting plopped atop a piece of meat or a big filet of fish, which are two of the many ways it's served at Galatoire's. But the layman doesn't eat at Galatoire's, a restaurant that requires suit jackets and a fat wallet. Nevertheless, in late winter and early spring, the restaurant's waiters were forced to explain the absence of crab to those who entered. The regular clientele scoffed at the institution's offer of a crawfish replacement, and lamented that "Galatoire's just isn't the same anymore." But that's not necessarily all bad. For one thing, you can now get inside.

The line at Galatoire's used to be legendary. A no-reservations policy meant that even politicians and celebrities would wait outside next to the rabble. There was no demarcation. The famous illustrative anecdote is of former Senator Bennett Johnson getting a call while he was waiting in line from then-President Ronald Reagan. Johnson went inside to take the call and then returned to his position outside on the curb. While it's still a noteworthy characteristic, the line is less of an issue these days thanks to a second floor with a bar that folks can wait in.

Dr. Kenneth Holditch first visited Galatoire's in 1949 with his parents and has carried a love for the restaurant ever since. In 2004 he wrote Galatoire's: Biography of a Bistro. A Tennessee Williams expert, he is quick to reference the restaurant's presence in A Streetcar Named Desire, but he also explained how he was able to get a seat with his friends during Mardi Gras season.

"Every Friday before Mardi Gras every year," he explained, "we would pay somebody to stand in line for us to get a table. It was finally costing about $500. These people had to be there Friday morning at eleven when it opened, and they started lining up on Monday."

Holditch, a regular for decades, resents the loss of the line and the changes the restaurant has undergone. He mentioned the new management, the one-time decision to use portobello mushrooms instead of button mushrooms in the shrimp Clemenceau, the hiring of a chef instead of a dependence on line cooks, the addition of a toaster and an ice machine, among other changes. Running out of crabmeat is just the most recent traitorous act.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's not the same restaurant it was," Holditch said. "The clientele has changed. There are a lot of yuppies and young business people who are loud, obnoxious, and don't really know what's going on. They don't know the history; they don't know the traditions."

The biggest offense to the longstanding clientele came in 2002 with the firing of waiter Gilberto Eyzaguirre. An Ecuadorian native, he had become a favorite at the establishment—he served Holditch for 20 years. But with a new manager and a series of sexual harassment complaints, the restaurant decided to let him go and the A-list customers nearly rioted. There was a letter campaign, a website was created, local writer Christopher Rose wrote a stage play called the Gilberto Letters and each performance sold out.

People cared less about the accusations than the role Eyzaguirre played in their dining experience.

"The nature of the protest was not only 'How dare you fire my waiter,' but 'How dare you fire my waiter over sexual harassment. ...that class dynamic was pretty striking.'" said Brett Anderson, the food critic for The Times-Picayune. "That remains one of the most illustrative stories about New Orleans and old New Orleans dining culture — that sense of ownership people have over it," he added.

But not all believe that the changes are negative. New investors, led by John Georges, took control of the restaurant in 2009. While original family members continue to participate in the future of Galatoire's, this investor group has worked to restore it to its former glory. Ice might come from a machine these days, but with this infusion of cash, the kitchen and dining room can now return to their original splendor. According to esteemed food writer John Mariani, who spent 30 years hunting down the Best New Restaurant of the Year for Esquire Magazine, the hire of Chef Michael Sichel steadied the transition. Mariani stated in his 2013 review that Sichel "shows both care and respect for all those cooks who preceded him for the past century, keeping the religion of Galatoire's alive."

With the restaurant's history and controversy in mind, I put on a ragged suit jacket and walked down rapturous Bourbon Street to meet the birthday contingent. They already had a table when I arrived, so I didn't experience a wait and there was no evidence of a line on a Saturday night. When I walked inside, I realized the restaurant's innards are not so different from the street it sits upon—everyone's drunk and aiming to get drunker. But at Galatoire's they're sipping from glass stemware at tables covered in white tablecloth instead of walking down the sidewalk and chugging grain alcohol out of plastic tubes with "Hand Grenade" plastered across their lime-green sides.

It didn't take long for the appetizers to come: soufflé potatoes with hollandaise sauce, shrimp remoulade, oysters en brouchette, and crabmeat maison—they'd procured some, as the crab scarcity came to an end a few weeks earlier. We drank and crammed our mouths as tuxedoed waiters moved to and fro, serving food and drinks or announcing another birthday to the dining room (a total of six by my count), and everyone sang their guts out. I ordered the pompano with crabmeat and meuniére amandine, which means fish, crab, and almonds were all mixed together on my plate. Sides of asparagus and spinach rockefeller and Brabant potatoes made the rounds. More martinis appeared next to me. I was enjoying the idea of eating and drinking lavishly and beyond my budget.

At the end they brought out the boozy café brulot, which they lit on fire and spilled across the table. I watched the alcohol burn blue on top of the white tablecloth tarnished by spilled sauces and scraps of far-flung fish. I sucked down porcelain cups of the stuff while I looked at my nearly $100 tab. It was at this moment I considered something Anderson had told me: "One of the things that's unique about [Galatoire's] is that it's like, 'Oh, you have to wear a jacket or a dress,' but people are getting sloshed. The decorum ends at a certain place. That's what I like about it. It's rowdy. It's fucking rowdy. That's what's awesome."

And he was right—it is.