Galatoire's: 100 Years of an Eating Institution The landmark New Orleans eatery turns 100 this year. Locals and celebrities, U.S. presidents among them, have queued up for a table over the years at a bistro celebrated in a biography by two regulars.
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Galatoire's: 100 Years of an Eating Institution

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Galatoire's: 100 Years of an Eating Institution

Galatoire's: 100 Years of an Eating Institution

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

New Orleans is a city obsessed with food, and this year one of its landmark restaurants is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Galatoire's restaurant has been serving specialities like Trout Marguery, Crabmeat Ravigote and oysters en brochette for a century. The recipes came from France with founder Jean Galatoire, and the restaurant has stayed in the family ever since. To commemorate the centennial, two of the restaurant's regulars have written a book, "Galatoire's: Biography of a Bistro." NPR's Debbie Elliott joined them for lunch.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT reporting:

It's 10:30 on a steamy summer Friday morning in the French Quarter, and already a line is forming on the 200 block of Bourbon Street.

Unidentified Man: Stay in line. Ooh, it's hot.

ELLIOTT: Local writer Marda Burton greets the other regulars as she takes her place behind them.

Ms. MARDA BURTON (Co-author, "Galatoire's"): ...the line--and it's not--it will be longer, a lot longer later.

ELLIOTT: Before long her co-author, Kenneth Holditch, walks up dressed in a baby blue seersucker suit.

Mr. KENNETH HOLDITCH (Co-author "Galatoire's"): It's hot. I came with my fan.

ELLIOTT: Holditch unfurls his accordion fan and stirs the thick air waiting for Galatoire's maitre d', Arnold Chabaud, to get things moving.

Mr. ARNOLD CHABAUD (Galatoire's): All right, let's see here.

ELLIOTT: Chabaud walks down the line, clipboard in hand, to see who's here.

Unidentified Woman #1: Eight of us today.

Mr. CHABAUD: Eight of us?

ELLIOTT: Diners arrive early not just to get on the list, but also to make sure they get their regular waiter. It's common for the same waiter here to have served a family for generations. But whether your family has dined here for 100 years or even if you've written a book about the place, it still doesn't get you in the door before Chabaud opens at 11 AM sharp.

Mr. CHABAUD: You know the rules of the road, right? Upstairs the bar is open.

Ms. BURTON: Yeah.

Mr. CHABAUD: 11:30 downstairs by the door.

Ms. BURTON: Yeah.

Mr. CHABAUD: Not before.

Ms. BURTON: Somehow we're going...

Mr. CHABAUD: If you're not there...

Ms. BURTON: ...to get that table, right?

ELLIOTT: Burton is angling hard for table 11, a prime corner spot where Tennessee Williams liked to dine. But first, drinks up at the bar.

Unidentified Man: I want a Sazerac, straight up.

ELLIOTT: Joe Severe(ph) has been a regular since 1965.

Mr. JOE SEVERE (Regular Customer): We have a chapter in the book called Table 22. We've been coming here for 45 years every Friday and we have people that cancel trips to make sure they don't have to miss Friday lunch. But it's a great group and it's a very important thing to me. I hate to admit that but it really is important.

ELLIOTT: That's the way many New Orleanians feel, as Marda Burton notes in her book's introduction.

Ms. BURTON: (Reading) In a city where people live to eat rather than eat to live, nobody doubts the importance of food and very special places to indulge in food. They're necessary to the very fabric of the city.

ELLIOTT: She writes, `In New Orleans that place is Galatoire's.'

Mr. JOHN FONTENOT (Waiter): Hey, baby. How you doin', sugar?

ELLIOTT: John Fontenot has been waiting tables here for 30 years. When the dining room opens, he brings cocktails even before they're ordered.

Mr. FONTENOT: Taste that. (Foreign language spoken) I'll guarantee it.

ELLIOTT: We get the coveted Tennessee Williams table in the front corner with a window view on Bourbon Street and, as Holditch notes, an even better vantage point on the sparkling dining room.

Mr. HOLDITCH: You could never forget this room once you've seen it. The thing you first notice when you come in are these fans, these two-blade fans, oscillating fans, and then you see the mirrors, you know, mirrors everywhere.

ELLIOTT: Jean Galatoire bought an existing restaurant here in 1905 and soon sent for his three nephews from southern France. Their grandchildren now run Galatoire's, and it's not that much different than it was 100 years ago, according to Vice President David Gooch.

Mr. DAVID GOOCH (Vice President, Galatoire's): The same solid food, service, decor. The same customers who come for generation after generation. That's very important to us.

Mr. FONTENOT: All right ...(unintelligible) that's souffleed potatoes and that's eggplant.

ELLIOTT: Our lunch begins with a plate of crispy potato puffs and fried eggplant strips. We never get a printed menu. John tells us what's good today.

Mr. FONTENOT: Then the appetizer (foreign language spoken). For the entree we've got soft-shell crab still playing the piano (foreign language spoken) stuffed baked black Caribbean shrimp....

ELLIOTT: The most festive lunches at Galatoire's are Fridays and especially the Fridays before Christmas and Mardi Gras. People start waiting in line, or pay people to wait for them, days early. Holditch says Justin Galatoire started the no reservations policy, no exceptions.

Mr. HOLDITCH: There were presidents who stood in line here and--presidents of the United States who stood in line, and presidents who refused to stand in line because they didn't think they should have to. One was Gerald Ford, who wouldn't stand in line.

ELLIOTT: While Holditch is steeped in the customs and traditions of Galatoire's, his co-author, Marda Burton, is here for the social event. She moves from table to table, meeting a couple who was married here and a woman who had her closing here when she sold the family mansion. Burton can regale you for hours with quirky stories about what's gone on at these white linen tables over the past century. For instance, the story of the Christmas mink.

Ms. BURTON: What had happened is a woman's mink coat had been stolen the night before at the Ebsen House(ph) and she recognized it coming in on the back of a blonde. And she was with a married man who had given it to her for a Christmas present that morning. And so, of course, he had to give it back to the rightful owner and it caused a huge brouhaha in the restaurant. But all worlds meet at Galatoire's.

ELLIOTT: It's well past 3:00 when the bill comes. Both Burton and Holditch scribble numbers on the check and sign their names. They both have house accounts here.

Mr. BURTON: People value their low numbers because that means they've been coming to this restaurant for generations. Us newcomers, we don't really worry about numbers. Well, I take it back. I got B-3. Somebody died and they said I could have it.

Mr. HOLDITCH: My number is H-294 and I'm perfectly happy to live with that number till the day I die.

ELLIOTT: And Holditch wouldn't mind being at Galatoire's that day, joining the list of diners who passed away enjoying their favorite meal at this 100-year-old landmark where New Orleans celebrates everything.

Mr. HOLDITCH: Here comes another birthday.

ELLIOTT: Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

SIEGEL: For recipes and to hear Kenneth Holditch and Marda Burton read from "Galatoire's: Biography of a Bistro," you can go to npr.org.

Group of People: (Singing in unison) Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you...

(Credits)

SIEGEL: I'm Robert Siegel. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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