Time machines may not exist in reality, but crossing the threshold of Antoine’s is like stepping out of Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine – it takes you back in time, to horse-drawn carriages, gas fire lighting and a relaxed yet regal dining experience.
These concepts are not unique in New Orleans. This is an old city, it has an old-world feel, and offers an atmosphere reminiscent of its European ancestors.
Antoine’s bridges the old and the new, and embodies the essence of New Orleans with its mixture of French-Creole cuisine, gothic decor and knowledgeable waitstaff.
Antoine Alciatore opened his namesake restaurant in 1840. No Antoine’s isn’t the oldest restaurant in America, that distinction belongs to Union Oyster House in Boston, established in 1826, but it is the oldest family run restaurant in America, now under management by a fifth generation of the Alciatore family.
To give some perspective to just how long ago that was, Antoine’s opened 21 years prior to the beginning of the Civil War. Martin Van Buren, our eighth president, was finishing his term in office and William Henry Harrison, a member of the Whig Party, was the president-elect. Over 170 years of dedicated service and thirty-five presidents later Antoine’s endures.
Located in the heart of the French Quarter, on Rue St. Louis, between Bourbon and Royal streets, the restaurant sets a bewitching stage for those arriving. The insanity of Bourbon Street is only a block away, but this rambling two-story edifice, draped in greenery from hanging plants and framed by black wrought iron offers sanctuary from the madness.
Inside is a bright, French-styled dining room. On busy nights this room can be filled with colorful characters, but more often it’s where the staff prefer to sit tourists and those unfamiliar with the restaurant. There’s nothing wrong with sitting here, especially when it’s decorated for the holidays, but I recommend seeking a table further inside Antoine’s.
Do a little research, then call ahead to see about reserving a table in a specific dining room. With 14 to choose from, and a seating capacity of over 700 – there’s plenty of options to explore.
In fact the waitstaff is trained to give tours of this living museum. The wine room is especially impressive. Measuring 165 feet long and seven feet wide, it can hold 25,000 bottles when fully stocked.
The main dining room, or Large Annex, is a cavernous hall filled with memorabilia. Mardi Gras is recognized prominently at Antoine’s, with four of the dining rooms celebrating this annual Bacchanalia. An unexpected Oriental motif is offered in the Japanese Room, while the Mystery Room takes diners back to the days of prohibition.
Between 1919-1933, if diners were seeking an alcoholic refreshment, there was a secret room that could be reached by slipping through a door in the ladies’ restroom, where fermented beverages were poured into coffee cups to help disguise them. If confronted by authorities about where this liquor came from, customers would utter, “It’s a mystery to me.” The name stuck.
If there is a specific dining area you desire, take a seat at the Hermes Bar and wait for availability. This is a fine vantage point to take in the sights, sounds and energy of Antoine’s, along with doing some quality people watching.
Allow me to inject this small observation here that holds true throughout New Orleans — waiters matter. Unlike most cities, where waiting tables is the domain of 20-something college students, in New Orleans a good waiter is a valuable commodity and a sought after career. Families look for a waiter the same way they do a priest. They align themselves with a waiter and a restaurant. There they will celebrate all the major events in their lives, and likely have a relationship with the same waiter for a lifetime.
Having the right waiter at Antoine’s comes in handy. He or she will make sure table requests are honored, guide the uninitiated through the vast menu, steer customers away from items they might not appreciate and tip customers to any chef’s specials that aren’t on the menu. New Orleans is an improvisational kind of town, the menu is just the tip of the iceberg.
On a first visit to Antoine’s it’s nearly impossible not to order at least one of the famous menu items that originated from its kitchen. Some may seem commonplace these days, like Oysters Rockefeller or Baked Alaska, because they have become so readily available, but it’s always compelling to sample the original.
Jules Alciatore first created Oysters Rockefeller in 1899, and named them after John D. Rockefeller, because the richness of this sauce rivaled his wealth. It’s estimated that Antoine’s has served over 3.5 million orders.
Signature items like the Oysters Foch, Escargots Bordelaise or Chicken Rochambeau are unequivocally Antoine’s.
I started with the Oysters Rockefeller, which are a meal unto themselves. Six plump Gulf oysters arrived encrusted with Antoine’s sublime herb and butter topping. I recommend splitting an order with someone because they are so decadent.
The beauty with oysters is they’re only so filling, so when my entrée arrived I was eagerly anticipating the first bite. I stayed relatively simple with my selection. After the Rockefeller, I didn’t want any kind of dense béarnaise sauce, instead opting for cleaner flavors.
I’m a huge fan of blackened redfish, or drum, especially paired with crab, so I had to go with the Pompano Pontchartrain.
This was a beautiful piece of fish.
The filet was grilled to perfection, then topped with lump crabmeat and sautéed in butter.
We’re talking heaven on a plate.
It was thick, firm, very meaty and evenly cooked. The flame put a light seasoned crust on the surface that my fork cracked through into a moist steaming delicacy. The fish essentially cooked in its own juices.
I treasured each mouthful, and at $38.75 it was creeping into steak-level prices, and worth every cent.
That being said, I advise potential visitors to adjust their expectations before choosing to dine at Antoine’s.
With anything open for this amount of time, the overall quality is going to ebb and flow. This is a restaurant from another era, that serves a historic cuisine in its own style. Like it or not, Antoine’s does its own thing, and when dining here you have to adjust expectations to a more European-style of service and to its cuisine – if this is a problem try somewhere else in town.
A good way to begin building a rapport with the restaurant is to try the light menu at the Hermes Bar, or Antoine’s price-fixed lunch menu of three courses for $20.12, including .25 cent martinis.
This just might be the best bargain in town.
A dinner here has everything a guest could expect from such a New Orleans landmark, the spectacle of haute Creole cuisine, the French influence and fresh ingredients from this bountiful region.
Other restaurants may offer a better overall level of quality, but the atmosphere here is incomparable, especially on busy nights or during Christmas. For anyone who places a significance upon what atmosphere in a restaurant can bring to an evening and subscribes to the unmistakable pleasure a truly delectable meal can have upon a night with someone special – try Antoine’s and see what is possible.
As noted New Orleans food critic Tom Fitzmorris is fond of saying, “In all the world, there is only one Antoine’s.”
713 Rue Saint Louis – (504) 581-4422
Hours: Dinner Monday thru Saturday 5:30-9:00 p.m.; Lunch: Monday thru Saturday 11:30 -2:00 p.m.; Sunday Jazz Brunch 1:00-2:00 p.m.