by Daren Wang
NEW ORLEANS — I’ve been to the French Quarter more times than I’d like to count, but New Orleanians insist that I’ve never actually been to New Orleans. The Quarter is not New Orleans, they tell me.
The Quarter seems to have its own gravity; it pulls you in whether you want to go or not.
I went first as a foolish young man — maybe 25 years ago, and I chose to stay in the Quarter. Even then, I found the unlimited public drinking paired with very limited public restrooms an unappealing combination.
I wrote off New Orleans from future pleasure trips.
Sure, I came back after that — but never by choice. I ended up in the city for conferences and meetings. Always in the Quarter. More of the same.
I was told time and again that I needed to get beyond Bourbon Street, so when I was invited to a friend’s pre-wedding event, I thought I’d finally get an insider view. The reception was in a lovely house North of the city somewhere. I was told so many times that New Orleans was the best city in America, I began to expect a timeshare sales pitch. I’ve never felt so much pressure to like a place. I remember being taken for a very good brunch in a strip mall somewhere. It all felt very suburban, except there for the fleur-de-lis on the menu.
Whatever was great about New Orleans, the natives weren’t sharing.
When I found myself again heading into the French Quarter for a conference this fall, it wasn’t with enthusiasm.
I asked around, and got a lot of guidance about where to drink. I took notes and made plans. But it was Mark Childress, best known for his books “Crazy in Alabama” and “Georgia Bottoms,” who sent me, via Facebook, to Galatoire’s.
“Put on a jacket and go to Galatoire’s for lunch,” he wrote.
Requiring a jacket is a little too much tradition for this Yankee, and Galatoire’s is hardly a hidden gem. In fact, it’s probably one of the best known names in the city.
I expected another tourist hell, but I wanted out of the hotel banquet room’s rubber-chicken lunch. I reluctantly pulled on a sport coat and made my way through the 90-degree heat to the cool white entryway of tradition, as pre-noon inebriated tourists passed me on Bourbon Street.
The hostess asked me if I had a favorite server.
Tourists don’t have favorite servers. Locals have favorite servers. At Galatoire’s, that server might have served you when you went on your fifth birthday. His grandfather might have served your grandfather. I was assigned to Adam. He told me that the menu hasn’t changed in over a century. He wore a coat and tie.
It was Saturday lunch in New Orleans, and a cocktail is required under those circumstances. I ordered the Galatoire special.
Garlic bread came. I can’t remember the last time a restaurant brought me unbidden garlic bread. It used to be a tradition, even where I grew up.
And the bread was perfect.
The cocktail came. Bourbon. Herbsaint. Peychaud’s Bitters, simple syrup. Served on ice with a lemon twist. It would have been a double in most establishments. Somewhere between a Sazarac and an Old Fashioned. The Herbsaint brought in a pleasant whiff of anise without overwhelming the bourbon itself. I could have drank that all day, and long into the night.
New Orleans is a hotbed of culinary experimentation. Innovative, exciting food is happening everywhere in the region. In the midst of that, a restaurant with a 100-year-old menu ought to be dreadful. But it isn’t. I had the lunch special — three courses with a redfish main for $20. It, too, was close to perfect.
Galatoire’s ought to be drowning in its mantle of tradition. All the female customers are in dresses, the men in jackets. The menu is written in stone. A man stands at a counter at the back of the dining room directing service like a conductor to his orchestra, and inspects the bottles of wine that come out of the back room.
But somehow, it is light on its feet. The diners are jolly — there’s lots of laughing, and the staff seems to help that along. There were three large tables of locals celebrating things, with balloons and gifts. One of the waiters called on the room to sing “Happy Birthday” for a gentleman. I think his name was Franklin.
My guess is, he didn’t have to ask Frankin’s name. He probably already knew it.
Like a good quartet taking on an Armstrong standard, Galatoire’s adherence to tradition creates a framework for the good stuff, the improvisation.
And now I have a favorite server, too. Adam was pleasant, efficient, and funny, but never intrusive. There when he was needed, gone when he wasn’t. He, like most of the waiters, is white, while most of the runners are black. While I was there, I saw one table of black ladies lunching among a sea of white faces in the dining room. Because it’s New Orleans, it’s hard not to be aware of race. The traditions of New Orleans were cast during the slave trade, and you can’t help but feel those ghosts are present. The hierarchy of workers at Galatoire’s is just as likely anywhere else in the U.S., but the cost of rooting yourself in New Orleanian tradition is that you also have to answer for it somehow. I talked with New Orleans native Maurice Ruffin about it later, and he told me that it used to be much worse. In the Trump era, I guess it’s more heartening to look at trajectory over current position.
After lunch, I stepped back onto the streets of the French Quarter. A man in a New England Patriots jersey stumbled and fell down about 10 paces in front of me, and his equally drunk friends scrambled to pull him out of the gutter. I could feel my inner Savonarola rearing his monkish head.
I messaged Mark Childress that I had taken his recommendation and how much I liked it. He replied, “That's my opening ritual, every time I come back to Nola, I go down there for lunch.
I love old restaurants that uphold their standards. Nola has quite a few but G's is the best.”
After all these years, I can finally find my way New Orleans.
“Put on a jacket and go to Galatoire’s for lunch. Ask for Adam.”