I GET THIS DIFFICULT QUESTION all the time: “What’s your favorite New Orleans restaurant?” With hundreds of choices, how do you name just one? I like when the question is more food specific. Favorite roasted chicken? Easy. Gautreau’s. Best sno-ball stand? Always the stand closest to one’s house. (In my case, Imperial Woodpecker.) Best dessert? I’m old school. It’s the Baked Alaska at Antoine’s with chocolate sauce, of course. But if this were a life or death question and I
to pick one single place, I know what I would choose: Galatoire’s.
I don’t go to Galatoire’s for state-of- the-art cuisine with unpronounceable ingredients or for the charming Bourbon Street location. I go for tradition and comfort food. My kind of comfort food. As in Crabmeat Maison and Trout Amandine. Think about it. Aside from Arnaud’s or Antoine’s, no other institution embraces ritual and tradition better than Galatoire’s. I like having the tables adorned with starched white linens, the glass carafes and the loaves of hot Leidenheimer’s French bread. I love that gentlemen must wear blazers in the evening, even ill-fitting loaners from the restaurant’s coat rack—and as much as I love tradition, I chuckle when customers flip out over any minuscule change, like the time they decided to use ice from an ice maker rather than chipping it off a block. And, no one will forget the year they finally began employing female servers. One socialite commented at the time, “If I wanted a uniformed waitress, I’d go to the Bon Ton or College Inn.” Times have changed.
We all have our own Galatoire’s stories to tell. As children, my brother and I wore our coats and ties and didn’t dare misbehave for fear of staying home with a sitter. Before the bar upstairs was opened, we had to stand in line outside like everyone else, which meant taking turns with parents and grandparents walking down Bourbon Street and trying to pretend that we couldn’t see into the strip bars.
I don’t think any restaurant has produced more folk tales and legendary stories than Galatoire’s. I love the one where a naughty customer and his guests left a massive tip in order stay past closing time in their underwear. Once, a first timer insisted on bringing her “service pet” with her to lunch in a backpack. Needless to say, the baby kangaroo was escorted out and placed behind the desk at a neighboring sex shop. I happened to be there the day one customer broke another guy’s wrist following an arm wrestling bet; however, I’m happy to say I was
there the day one guy got so drunk that he urinated into a woman’s Gucci bag or the day one woman’s gun went off while placing her purse on the floor, sending a bullet flying into the baseboard. The dents are still there.
The most poignant and haunting Galatoire’s story I know is from my old friend Johnny. His great-grandfather Henry Rightor was a playwright and a poet. In order to support his family, he was forced to accept a dull job with an insurance company. Despite its not being his lifelong passion, he excelled at the job. One Friday morning, he receives the good news that he is getting a substantial salary raise. He calls his wife, Ella, and says, “Get dressed up. We’re going to Galatoire’s to celebrate.” During their lunch, he pulls out a diamond pin and tells her that the hard times are over and instructs her to take the afternoon off and go shopping on Canal Street. Later that evening, weighed down with bags, she boards a streetcar back uptown. At one stop, a newspaper boys hops on to sell cigarettes and evening papers. She would never forget his words, “Extra, extra, Henry Rightor dies in office.” It was a massive heart attack. In the face of such adversity, Mrs. Rightor went back to Galatoire’s.
In 2005, my pals Kenneth Holditch and Marda Burton wrote a wonderful book called
Galatoire’s: Biography of a Bistro
. It’s filled with colorful Galatoire’s stories. It’s been a while since I’ve looked at it, but now I’m wondering if it’s time for Part Two. I’d be happy to organize the perfect photo shoot, which would include a table of topless patrons wearing obligatory blazers while holding pistols in one hand and arm wrestling with the other. The main challenge would be finding a suitable Gucci bag for the baby kangaroo.