Changes at New Orleans' Landmark Eatery Antoine's
Changes at New Orleans' Landmark Eatery Antoine's
ABC News

There's an old story in New Orleans about a society matron who heard about a friend's death. Grief-stricken but practical, the matron immediately wondered if the waiter at Antoine's whom her friend had relied on for years was up for grabs, or if someone had already claimed him.

"I believe it," said Sterling Constant, 58, who has been a waiter at the famous French Quarter restaurant for 42 years. "One of my customers had me go to his house and serve him a meal the day before he died. They're a very loyal group."

Since Antoine's opened its doors in 1840, it has been a New Orleans hallmark for fine dining, a bastion of French Creole food and an island of grand tradition.

But times, the economy and renovations following $14 million in damage from Hurricane Katrina have brought changes to Antoine's.

The restaurant has added a jazz brunch for the first time. Its traditional Creole menu now carries English translations, and the once-voluminous listings have been pared down.

Even the dress code has been relaxed. "We still don't allow things like ripped jeans and flip-flops," said Yvonne Alciatore Blount, whose family has run Antoine's for five generations. "And many of our diners, especially at dinner, do enjoy dressing up, but we no longer enforce the coat and tie rule."

While doing renovations to repair damage from Katrina, Antoine's also turned a dining room into the Hermes Bar, the first bar in the restaurant's 169-year history.

But the changes were not made lightly. "We very much feel a weight of responsibility," said Blount. "This is so much more than a restaurant. It's a landmark, a piece of history."

Founded by Blount's ancestor, Antoine Alciatore, Antoine's is one of the oldest family-run restaurants in the United States. The restaurant is credited with originating Oysters Rockefeller, Pompano en Papillote, Eggs Sardou and Pigeonneaux Paradis.

Blount's father, Roy Alciatore, who ran the restaurant from 1934 until his death in 1972, won an award for creating the American equivalent of hors d'oeuvres — appetizers.

The menu, a small tabloid that, until recently, was available only in French, lists page after page of such delights as Crabes mous Amandine, Cotefettes d'Agneau grillees, Cerises Jubile and Cafe Brulot Diabolique.

"I always say the difference between Antoine's and our other fine restaurants is that while they are always looking for something new to add to the menu, that's not at all what we do here," said Blount. "We want to prepare the same dishes the same way, lovingly, perfectly, beautifully every day."

The decor, with its leaded glass, sheer curtains and ancient tile floors, is spread over several buildings and 15 dining rooms — ranging from very large to small enough for a single couple.

Five presidents, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and stars from Elizabeth Taylor to Angelina Jolie, Rex Harrison to Tom Cruise, have dined at Antoine's. Most celebrities enter through a hidden hallway, but when Pope John Paul II visited New Orleans, Antoine's served his meals at the archbishop's house every night.

It was after Hurricane Katrina that things began to change. The building did not flood, but wind and rain from the 2005 storm did $14 million in structural damage.

"We filed a claim with Lloyds of London that was two inches thick," said Wendy Chatelain, director of marketing for the restaurant.

"It was horrendous," Blount said. "The whole third and fourth floor was destroyed; a wall crashed in. And there was water damage on every floor."

The renovations are now completed, returning the dining rooms to their former state, complete with pictures, collectables and memorabilia.

The famous Carnival rooms — Rex, Proteus, Twelfth Night — all named for Carnival Krewes and decorated with crowns and costumes from each, are back. So is the 1840 Room, the Dungeon, located in a building that was once a French Quarter jail, and The Last, or Tabasco Room, where it is said more marriages have been proposed than any other location in the city.

One of the biggest changes was the addition of the bar. "This is going to save Antoine's," said Chatelain. "We needed more money to stay afloat than we got from just our diners."

As historic and elegant as Antoine's is, it is not stuffy. The staff enjoys showing off the many dining rooms and relating their history.

"Just ask," Chatelain said. "We love taking people around the restaurant."

The next addition planned is Antoine's Annex, a casual restaurant that will serve light lunches, coffee, pastries and other dishes.

As for those status-conscious souls who yearn to rise above the hoi polloi by having the staff address them by name, escort them to a table where cocktails await, and know their favorite dishes by heart, Constant said there is no longer a waiting list for those who want their own waiters.

"No, no, just ask for me when you make the reservation," he said. "Then we get to know each other."

If You Go...

ANTOINE'S: 713 Rue Saint Louis, New Orleans; or 504-581-4422. Dinner appetizers, $12-20; most entrees $25-40; sides under $10.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.
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