A lusty place that openly wears its scars, this Louisiana town is also where slavery and war have intersected with many waves of immigration.
The “power lunch” lives.
You just have to travel to New Orleans to find it.
On a scurry through the Big Easy last week — a city as steamy and spellbinding as ever — I found myself in the schmoozy noontime embrace of Galatoire’s on Bourbon Street. At the citadel of French-Creole fare, besides being one of the oldest continuously running restaurants in America, I felt transported to the “doing lunch” apex of the 1980s (the air-kissing! the conspiring heavy-hitters!). But not only that: I got an instant dopamine hit of that thing so missing over the last couple years: the inimitable hum of a truly bustling restaurant. White noise, baby.
Galatoire’s. Where men are asked to wear jackets (standards!), the waiters don bow ties, the long bright room is rife with gossip, the whole place comes to a standstill and sings “Happy Birthday” when there is a celebrant in the room (as there was the day I was there) and the Turtle Soup comes with a small pitcher of sherry on the side. Check: the white tablecloth, the ceiling fans, the black-and-white tile.
Going since Jean Galatoire bought it in 1905, and soon sent to France for his three nephews to come and help run it, it has drawn an entire constellation of names. Babs has been in. So has Mick. Tennessee Williams, a local, used to regularly set up shop at Table 11, near the front.
“Where y’at?” That query rang out, again and again, as I focused on my crayfish maison, while eavesdropping on tables around me. New Orleans-ese, essentially, for “How’s it going?”
Going fabulously, as I told David Gooch, when he came over to greet me later. One of 30-plus descendants of the original Galatoire, who finally sold their combined shares of the restaurant in 2009 — in what seems like a “Succession”-like faceoff — he still hangs out at the resto. “What? As a kind of ambassador?” I quizzed.
“Well,” he beamed, pulling out a card from his pocket. “Ambassador”: precisely what it read. Asking the diplomat if it is as busy every day (answer: yes), I went on to inquire about the gorgeous floor tile. How long had it been there? “Post-Katrina,” he murmured, which stayed with me as it was something I heard a lot during my time in New Orleans.
“Post-Katrina.” “Pre-Katrina.” How people casually mark time, memories of the 2005 disaster never far. Emblematic, too, actually of the paradoxes of this Louisiana town: a lusty place that also openly wears its scars. French and Spanish and Haitian and Catholic, it is also where slavery and war have intersected with many waves of immigration. Did you know the phrase “sold down the river” is a reference to New Orleans? But that it also, at one point, had more “free people of colour” than any other American city, a place where an elite class of wealthy Blacks spoke French, held salons and sometimes owned slaves themselves? A port city where jazz is king, seersucker was born, a southern city without “southern” accents, and its famous French Quarter famously resembles something out of Seville or Mallorca more than it does Paris.
Conferring with yet another part of New Orleans, I wandered the so-called Garden District after my lunch; famous for its shady oaks and antebellum homes. Getting in plenty of “steps” with my guide, who gave me an architectural crash course (a “shotgun house,” for one) while pointing out some of the more famous addresses (the “Manning House,” for instance, where two NFL greats grew up, Eli and Peyton), he finally delivered me to my main target: the Anne Rice House on St Charles Avenue.
“She used to dream of living in the Garden District,” the guide told me about the Queen of Goth Lit who died just months ago and was more responsible than anyone in recent times for marketing the mystique of New Orleans. (Certainly for me.) Grew up poor, not far from there, with a kind of rough upbringing, it turns out. But after the success of “Interview With the Vampire” (both the book and the movie), while spooling a whole cultural phenomenon (her sexed-up vampires resonated strongly during the rise of the AIDS epidemic), Rice started buying several properties in this fancy-pants ’hood, including the home she settled in that I was peering at now.
Pink-hued, three-storeyed and Italianate. I couldn’t help but note the ginormous mossy tree that looms in front of it, winding toward an upper window. There was something moving about seeing the tree that Rice herself looked out at for years standing firm.
Too earnest? OK, perhaps. This, after all, is the same author who once arrived at a book signing just a few streets over in a coffin, carried by a horse-drawn hearse.
The new, the old and the new-old. I managed to fit in a fair bit during my visit. A saunter to Louis Armstrong Park, for instance. One night: dinner at Pêche, a so-good seafood destination in the Warehouse District that is a defining hot spot of the more modern NOLA (New Orleans, Louisiana.) Obligatory, bien sûr: a beeline for beignets at Café Du Monde. Classic: catching a quintet at the historic Preservation Hall, an intimate, size-of-a-classroom, music-moves-with-the-building experience. Love, have always loved: Faulkner House Books, a beauty of a bookstore in the building where William Faulkner once lived.
Rounding out my trip, finally, the place where I lay my head: Hotel Peter and Paul. Tucked away in the boho Marigny neighbourhood, it is a hotel I have been circling on my Instagram feed for a bit: a design ace in the way it used to be a rectory, a convent, a church and school house (all reimagined by the celebrated design team ASH NYC). The restaurant there, the Elysian (where the priests once slept), is like stepping onto a sound stage and was on the Bon Appétit 2019 list of Best New Restaurants. The suites: an anything-but-typical blast of modern gingham, hand-painted tile and whimsy. There is even an on-site ice cream shop called Sundae Best.
Not one thing, the place, and often layer laid on layer. Just like New Orleans itself.