Antoine's Restaurant's iron-galleried front is emblematic of New Orleans, the French Quarter, and superb cuisine (1994 photograph).
For 135 years the chefs at Antoine's have been preparing haute cuisine, and gourmets from all over the world have been patronizing the establishment. Over the years a sense of exclusiveness and prestige has become associated with the restaurant, giving it the ambience of a private club. However, do not be intimidated by the restaurant's reputation. You do not have to murmur a password to enter the sanctum at 713 St. Louis Street, New Orleans. Getting a memorable meal at Antoine's is not difficult. All you need to do is to convey to your waiter the fact that you sincerely appreciate fine food and he will take care of you.
Trinity, one of Antoine's very professional waiters.
One especially competent waiter is Trinity. He is knowledgeable about the cuisine, and once he senses that you do not expect the food to taste like that cooked in Dayton or Topeka, he will do everything to satisfy you. Give him an idea of your food preferences, and he will advise you about what to order. (The menu is printed in French, so it might need some clarification.)
Certain dishes are almost always superb. The Shrimp Bisque (Bisque de Crevettes) and the Crawfish Bisque Cardinal (Bisque d'Ecrevisses Cardinal) are smooth, thick, and well-seasoned. The Hearts of Artichoke Bayard (Fonds d'Artichauts Bayard) is imaginative and tasty. It consists of a bed of shredded lettuce, an artichoke bottom, tomato slices, puree of celery and parsley, anchovies, a smidgen of caviar, hard-cooked egg yolks, and viniagrette dressing.
The Tournedos with Marchand de Vin Sauce is an incomparable entree. If you prefer seafood, order the Pompano en Papillote, but watch out — this envelope contains a steaming and succulently-sauced piece of pompano so rich that you wonder if your body and soul can endure so many calories and so much pleasure. The Trout Florentine (Filet de Truit Florentine) is a bit less filling, but is excellent. It is trout with spinach and hollandaise sauce served au gratin in a casserole.
An interesting tradition at Antoine's is the fact that orders are not written down. Even when a large party selects many different courses and dishes, the waiter remembers the order.
The restaurant is justifiably famous for its extraordinary selection of wines, and the prices are reasonable. Walk back to the far end of the restaurant and peer into the wine “cellar.” It is said to be one of the largest in the world. It is 165 feet long and seven feet wide. Fully Stocked it will hold approximately 24,783 bottles. Antoine's normally maintains a supply of 17,000 to 20,000 bottles.
A meal at Antoine's costs between $15.00 and $25.00 per person. The restaurant is open every day except Sunday. The hours are from noon until 9:30 p.m. Telephone for reservations and ask to be served by your favorite waiter. If he happens not to be working that evening, at least ask to be seated in the annex, rather than the front room. The regular customers usually sit in the large rear dining room or in various smaller dining rooms. The brightly-lit front room is where out-of-town people are often seated.
A maitre d' awaits guests at Antoine's front door, 1983.
Henri Alciatore, great-grandson of Antoine Alciatore, is the assistant manager of Antoine's. He is a gracious and pleasant gentleman, fitting perfectly the role of a host at the never-ending dinner party that is Antoine's.
Alciatore talked to The Community Standard about the restaurant and gave a tour of the dining rooms. Because Antoine's is a family operation and an family tradition, Alciatore speaks of the restaurant lovingly, almost as if it were a favorite child. He pledges, “We will always keep Antoine's in the family.”
Henri Alciatore: “We will always keep Antoine's in the Family.”
In relating a little of the history of the restaurant, Alciatore explained that in 1840 the building at 713 St. Louis Street was a hotel with the restaurant on the ground floor. As time passed, the restaurant business was continued, and was even expanded into the adjacent buildings. The hotel business was discontinued.
Today Antoine's has a seating capacity of approximately 700. There are 13 separate dining rooms currently in use. The upstairs dining rooms are reserved for private parties. They are more lavishly decorated than the ground floor rooms, and each has a sort of theme. For example, the Capitol Room is so named because the wooden panels on the walls were taken from the old capitol building in Baton Rouge. The Capitol Room has a twin next door, Maison Verte. Both rooms are almost identical in size and decor, with lush deep-pile green carpets and four black marble fireplaces, two in each room. The Japanese Room, which has not been used since World War II, has beautiful handpainted wallpaper in the design of a rose trellis. The Veranda Room is painted flat red. (Alciatore says they only use this room when they are really filled up.) The Art Gallery Room is decorated with many fine paintings.
At one time, one of the ground floor dining rooms to the rear of the building was actually used as a mushroom “cellar.” The ground floor also houses the famous Rex Room and the Escargot Room.
The Mystery Room.
The dining room about which people are most curious is the Mystery Room. Why is it named that? Alciatore gives this explanation. During Prohibition anyone admitted to the Mystery Room had to enter through the ladies' rest room, because Cafe Brûlot (coffee with liqueur) was served in the Mystery Room and they did not want many people to know that.
This is the explanation of the name from Francis Parkinson Keyes' book Dinner at Antoine's:
Roy's father, Jules, happened to pick up a painting one time in a barroom on St. Charles Street. The place was being sold out. It was a picture that intrigued Papa Jules no end, because to the unschooled eye of innocence it seemed to be just a portrait of an old, baldheaded man's profile. But if you looked closely, you saw that it was also the painting of a very nude girl.
Papa Jules got no end of innocent fun out of bringing people to this room and displaying the mystery of his painting.
And not long after that the mystery painting disappeared. I tell you, it was a sensation. So far as New Orleans was concerned, the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre was a Saturday night police court case compared to the theft of the Mystery Room portrait.
A picture entitled “The Pursuit of Vanity” does hang in the Mystery Room. At first glance, it appears to be a skull, but upon closer inspection one perceives that it is a woman at her dressing table. Another odd thing about this room is that it has a door opening out onto St. Louis Street; the door is a private entrance used only for special customers.
A sample of the memorabilia hanging in the Mystery Room.
The Community Standard asked Alciatore if he feels that Antoine's has the reputation of being snobby. “I don't think the restaurant should seem pretentious, although we are proud of it. I hope we are not getting snobby.”
The Community Standard then mentioned that people sometimes have trouble getting into Antoine's. “We hate to make people wait. I tell them when they wait outside in line, 'We'd much rather have you inside than out, but we have only so many tables and only so many chairs.'”
St. Louis Street and Antoine's, as photographed by Aubrey C. Jenkins, ca. 1962.
An Antoine's souvenir postcard, sent by the author to her parents during the week this article was drafted in December 1974.
Antoine's traditional menu cover, as shown in its 150-year edition in 1990.
A souvenir booklet of Antoine's history, as distributed during 1990.
Available directly from the publisher, and at many museum bookstores.
An Affair of the Heart: America's Romance with Louisiana Food
A Dover book available from Mitchells Publications.
The Picayune's Creole Cook Book
Copyright © 1975–2006 Patricia B. Mitchell.