Maybe the good old New Orleans will recover after all.
Galatoire’s, which along with Antoine’s rates as the most storied and traditional of all of New Orleans’ plethora of famous restaurants, reopened on New Year’s Day. No finer celebration could be imagined.
I made the trek from Mobile with nine of my in-laws to help boost the economy of my beleaguered but resilient native city–and, of course, to enjoy one of the finest meals available on God’s green earth. And also so my in-laws, New Orleans-lovers all, could see for themselves, for the first time, what had become of their favorite day-trip destination.
As bad as the destruction is–and in about three-fourths of the city, the carnage remains so horrific that you just cannot believe it unless you see it with your own eyes–it is also true that life is looking almost normal in what natives now call “The Sliver by the River,” which is the older and higher section of town close to the Mississippi that includes the French Quarter, the Garden District, and uptown on the river side of St. Charles Avenue. And in that Sliver, the famed New Orleans joie de vivre and its humor in the face of adversity are both on full display. One of the hottest-selling books there, for instance, is a collection of photographs of humorous graffiti spray-painted on ruined refrigerators abandoned on the roadside. (“Free Gumbo Inside!” “Tom Benson [unpopular New Orleans Saints owner], please eat what’s here.”) T-Shirts feature mock-ups of Katrina, Rita, and Wilma swirling in the Gulf, under the large-caps logo of “Girls Gone Wild,” or they proclaim the newest popular drink, a take-off on a margarita called a KatrinaRita. Or they feature numerous theories as to what FEMA actually stands for, the most printable being Federal Employees Missing Again; or what the New Orleans Police Department initials represent, as in “Not Our Problem, Dude.”
Walking past all the Bourbon Street t-Shirt shops, therefore, put us all in a good mood even before we set foot in Galatoire’s, where local TV cameras recorded the joy of the grand reopening.
The famous ground-floor dining area–one long, narrow, mirrored room, elegant in the old French bistro style rather than grandly ornate like some of the other New Orleans restaurants–was, of course, jam-packed with happy diners. We, however, had secured a table in the well-appointed upstairs dining room. It’s a little quieter, but no less convivial. And it was as if no hurricane had ever landed. The wait staff was as superb as ever. The drinks were perfectly mixed. The French bread was the pluperfect New Orleans style, crispy on the outside and somewhat airy in the middle–and, of course, served warm and fresh.
And the menu was the same as ever–everything perfectly prepared, rich, delicious. The famous appetizers, most notably the Shrimp Remoulade and the Crabmeat Maison, featured the accustomed subtle-but-distinct and unsurpassed flavors. The entree specialties–Trout (Meunière) Amandine and either Filet Bernaise or Lamb Chops Bernaise–harkened back to the best dining experiences of days gone by. The desserts, the wines, the atmosphere, indeed everything, all advertised in savory tastes and unselfconscious grace that the best of New Orleans can never be destroyed.
Michelle Galatoire, granddaughter of founder Leon, personally checked on our party about five or six times. She explained that the restaurant itself weathered Katrina just fine, but that the electricity was out so long that their custom-built, walk-in refrigerator, and all that was in it, was ruined–and had to be painstakingly removed and replaced, which was quite a feat of engineering. About 80 percent of the staff has returned, though, and the commitment to excellence, new refrigerator included, is as great as ever.
The wondrous meal finally over, back out on Bourbon Street, the foot traffic was almost as heavy, and every bit as simultaneously exuberant and hung-over/bleary-eyed, as on any New Orleans Sunday. On a football field in Tampa, the beloved Saints were putting the finishing touches on another loss, just as they have for most of their 39 years in existence. Le plus ça change, le plus… oh, you all know what I mean. The heart of New Orleans, saucy and generous and rich and able to laugh at (and sometimes even embrace) disasters on the weather charts and on the gridiron, will never change.
Galatoire’s is back, which means that even if everything’s not entirely right with the world, at least enough is right for the celebration of life to continue. Now, please spoon up another dollop of bernaise sauce for my lamb chops, and pour me a KatrinaRita. Let’s all “pass a good time, cher.” There’s a jazz band in the next block, and it’s a wonderful world.
–Quin Hillyer, a New Orleanian by birth and for life, is an editorial writer and columnist for the Mobile Register.